Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

March 9, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for March's episode, we're going to be celebrating International Women's Day.

 

In 2020 the theme for International Women's Day is 'each for equal'. The worldwide event’s tagline reads, “an equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world, celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, take action for equality”. So from this theme we wrote 3 questions and asked 9 women from across GDS for their opinion.

 

Let’s hear what they had to say. 

 

Which woman inspires you in digital government and why?

 

Charlotte Downs:

I’m Charlotte Downs, and I’m a Graphic Designer in the Communications Team. 

 

So I love this question, but I am going to cop out. I think I find it difficult to find a specific female that inspires me because individually everyone has different aspects to who they are that are great. And I learn from each of those different bits. 

 

So I’m inspired by lots of females, our team is mainly female. And I find that each of them, the resilience that they have and just the energy they bring to work, inspires me to be better in my work and in, and personally. 

 

Liz Lutgendorff:

I’m Liz Lutgendorff, I’m the Senior Research Analyst for the International Team. And as a side gig, I’m also one of the co-chairs of the Women’s Network at GDS.

 

I think I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one, because it’s really hard to pick just one. And especially I, I guess I’d focus on GDS because I most you know, that’s my main source of knowledge. But I think if you pick any person at GDS who’s working here, you’re going to find something really inspirational about them. 

 

Even just about you know, trying something that’s really frustrating to them, but might be easy to someone else, but just like putting yourself out there; if you’re scared of public speaking, people are doing speaker training so they can tell their stories about what they’re doing in digital, even though they’re kind of scared to death of it. 

 

So yeah, I’m just going to have a total cop out and say every single woman at GDS, from our HR people, to our Estates people, to our developers, everyone. Everyone is doing amazing things everyday.

 

Joanna Blackburn:

I’m Joanna Blackburn, I’m Deputy Director for Communications and Engagement here in GDS.

 

There actually, when I was asked this question, there are a lot of women out there who are quite inspirational in terms of breaking barriers, but the first person that really came to mind for me is a lady called Rachel Neaman. Rachael Neaman was, at the time that I met her, the first digital leader in the Department for Health. And at the time I was working at an ALB [arm's length bodies] where I was responsible primarily to move out existing websites onto GOV.UK. 

 

And the reason why Rachel comes to mind for me is because I met her while attending a meeting of very senior people across the Department for Health. And so it was quite an intimidating environment where everybody was of quite senior stature, and here I am in middle management sort of like feeling like an imposter. But I was so inspired by the way she challenged that group of people, and how she said it is their responsibility to drive digital transformation in their work and to role model leadership behaviours so that their teams will do the same. 

 

So for me, she’s one of the, one of those people that I really believe is transformational in digital transformation for government. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Can you tell me a story about gender equality in the workplace?

 

Sanwar Bopari:

I’m Sanwar Bopari, and I’m an Executive Assistant.

 

I’m really interested in the work that the Women’s Network are doing around the gender pay gap. I think it’s really important because it’s never quite transparent and it’s good to make it obvious to everyone.

 

Jen Allum:

I’m Jen Allum, and I’m the Head of GOV.UK.

 

We have diverse panels for recruitment at GDS. And one moment that really struck me recently was interviewing for a role in the GOV.UK programme. And the person we were interviewing referred throughout the interview only to men. So it was all references to he and him. To such a degree that I needed to ask if all of the people that he’d worked with were men. And of course he hadn’t. 

 

But the thing that really struck me about that was not so much that maybe that had happened, but that the colleagues I had on the panel, who happened to be male, hadn’t noticed it until I’d asked the question. 

 

And of course I’ve heard the argument about you know, when you hear ‘he’ what we mean is everyone, but I don’t buy that and language matters. So it was a really underlying moment for me in why we have diversity in our recruitment panels.

 

Leena Taha:

My name is Leena Taha, and I’m a Senior Content Designer on the Brexit Journeys Team. 

 

One of the people who I used to work with before, he would amplify the voices of other women in the room if they were ever ignored. For example, if we were ever in a meeting then, and somebody made a point that was later ignored, he would circle back to it and, ‘say so and so mentioned this earlier which was a good point’. Which really helped to make everybody's voices heard.

 

Laura Stevens:

What will you do this year to make GDS a better workplace for women?

 

Laura Flannery:

Hello I’m Laura Flannery, I’m a Senior Product Manager, I work on GOV.UK.

 

So I have the privilege of being the co-chair of the Women’s Network, I lead and co-ordinate the Women’s Network and the working groups within it. And we have a lot of things planned over the next year to make GDS a better place for women but also for everyone, because the knock on effects of what we do make GDS better for everyone. That’s an important point.

 

We’re working on the gender pay gap. We have a working group and we have an action plan. So we’re using data to understand what interventions are working to make the gender pay gap smaller. We have some training on career progression coming up so we’ll be teaching participants how to define milestones that they need to achieve their goals, helping them to gain clarity and direction and the confidence to pursue their aspirations. We’re also planning some public speaking training so helping people to build confidence, find their voice. 

 

We have a mentoring scheme that we set up a couple of years ago, and we’re going to operationalise that. So we’re handing it over to the People Team, so there is someone who will be looking after it and that is there, that’s part of their job. Because the Women’s Network is a network of volunteers so the fact that we’re able to do that is actually a really great sign and it’s you know, should have good impact across GDS. 

 

We’ve also recently done a survey on period products in the bathrooms. So GDS provides free period products for women, and reviewing that process so we can make it better to meet the needs of women here. And we’re running, we’re going to run lots of campaigns to raise awareness on certain topics, for example the gender pay gap, women's health, lots of other things. 

 

Jennifer Marks:

Hi my name is Jennifer Marks and I’m a Digital Delivery Advisor at the Future Relationships and Expert Services Team at GDS.

 

So I’ve been in GDS coming up to a year, it’ll be my first year anniversary in April, and the one thing I’ve really noticed is the Women’s Network do amazing work but there is one area which I think should really be on the agenda. And that is about women returners; that’s women who have for some reason or other, it’s usually motherhood, sometimes it could be care of relative, have taken career breaks. And they struggle to get back into the workplace, and these are women who, they have immense skill sets and yet because they’ve taken 2 maybe 3 years out of the workplace, or more, the workplace is suddenly closed to them. 

 

And it’s something I really would like to put on the agenda. I think it’s important. These are women who could have so much to offer, they have the skills, the ability and I think that they would be a great addition to GDS, and I’d like to look at how we can bring these women back into the workplace, what we can offer them. And I have had the benefit of working and volunteering with the Women’s Returner Network. Because I was one of those women, and I think it’s important to help promote other women, help other women make sure they have access to work and what they need to really shine through. 

 

Eliška Copland:

My name is Eliška Copland and I work as a Cyber Security Analyst. 

 

So I think that we all know that there is a shortage of women in technology. And it’s one thing to kind of hire more women, and there’s a big push to high more women in technology, but it’s also a completely different method to make them feel like they’re included and a valued addition to the team, and motivate them and drive them to their best. And I think that there are ways that this can be improved. And I think that some teams and some managers do it better than others, and I would like to just understand and learn more about how that, how that can be done. And again I would like to find male allies in this.

 

So that was, that, that’s one thing. I suppose then I also, just because one of the mottos of GDS is to be kind and be generous, I think generally us women in this male dominated field kind of need to be more generously speaking up when some kind of injustice is happening, either to ourselves or to others, but should do it in a kind way. 

 

But I think GDS is a wonderful place to, to work and I can’t stress enough that there isn’t that much injustice happening, and most of the time it’s, you meet absolutely wonderful people in this sector. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to everybody from across GDS who came in to talk today about International Women’s Day. 

 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read a transcript on PodBean. 

 

So thank you once again to everyone and goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

February 28, 2020

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And today’s podcast is going to be on the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

The GOV.UK Design System is a collection of tools and resources for designing and building products and services. It provides styles, components and patterns that are accessible. This helps hundreds of teams across the public sector design and build services that are of high quality and can be used by anyone. 

 

The impact of the design system, created and managed by a team of 10 here at GDS, is significant. It’s used in central government, local government and has also been used by the NHS and international governments to develop their own design systems. It saves teams time and money and helps give people a consistent and accessible experience when interacting with government. 

 

To tell us more is Tim Paul, who is on the team who launched the GOV.UK Design System. Tim has also been at GDS for a long time, he was on the team that launched GOV.UK in fact as well. We’re also going to be hearing from people from central and local government about how the GOV.UK Design System has helped their work.

 

So yeah, welcome Tim to the podcast. 

 

Tim Paul: 

Hi there, how are you doing?

 

Laura Stevens:
Thanks for coming on today. And could you tell us what your job is here at GDS and how you work with the GOV.UK Design System?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah so I guess my official job title is Head of Interaction Design. But for the last couple of years, I’ve mainly been kind of doing that as a Product Manager really for the Design System. So that’s a thing that we kind of kicked off a couple of years ago and we’ve managed to build a team around that, and develop a suite of products. We launched those back in summer of 2018 and yeah, I’ve been product managing that and working with the team closely ever since.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So the Design System was launched back in July 2018. But what is the Design System made up of?

 

Tim Paul: 

So it’s essentially a suite of 3 different products. So you’ve got the Design System itself, which is basically a website with guidance and coded examples for designers and frontend developers to use to design and prototype and build public services. So that’s the first thing.

 

And then there’s a thing we call the GOV.UK Prototype Kit, and that’s a piece of software that designers in particular can download and install, and they can use it to rapidly create very high fidelity prototypes that they can take into user research. And they can test out ideas before their, their team commits to building anything. So they can find out what the right thing to build is.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul: 

And then the third thing, which underpins both of those, is a thing we call GOV.UK Frontend. And that’s essentially a frontend framework, so it’s all the Javascript and the CSS [Cascading Style Sheets] wrapped up into a nice package that developers can install into their projects. And so the Prototype Kit and the Design System both use GOV.UK Frontend and that means that designers and developers are both drawing from the same kind of library of components and patterns. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I heard you say before that you think of the Design System also as a service as well, what do you mean by that?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yes. So as well as the 3 products that we provide, we also offer support and training. We’ve helped facilitate contributions to the design system and we’ve run community events and we have regular hangouts with our community of users and contributors. So we really think of the whole thing together as being an actual service, and we have you know, a multidisciplinary team to support both the products and that service. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you were talking about the different parts of the GOV.UK Design System, for people who are listening and don’t know what a component is or a pattern or a style. Could you explain what those things are please? 

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah, ok, I’ll have a go.

 

So when we first started out - figuring out how to make this thing, we did a lot of thinking about what were the things that were going to be inside the Design System. There’s no really established language for talking about this stuff. Although design systems as an idea are fairly well established now. 

 

So in the end we settled on 3 definitions. And so we have what we call styles. And they’re the really low level building blocks that everything else is made out of. So it’s things like colour palettes and how your typography works and how your page layouts work and your grid system and so on. So those are the styles. 

 

And then one level up from that if you like, we have things that we call components. And so components are chunks of user interface, UI. So they’re visible things that you can compose onto a webpage and that, and, and that makes your service. So it’s things like drop-down lists and tables and navigation and headers and footers. And all our components are built using code, the code that we provide in GOV.UK Frontend. And so that’s what a component is.

 

And finally one level up from that we have things that we call patterns, and patterns are a little bit more abstract. They’re centred around common needs that users of public services have. So for example, lots of public services require that people enter information about themselves like their name or their address and so on, and so we have design patterns which explain the best most usable way that we’ve found, to ask users for that kind of information. 

 

And, we have even higher level design patterns so for example, it’s quite common that a public service has eligibility requirements that, that, that users must meet if they are able to use that service. And so we have a pattern for example, which explains how best to help users understand whether or not they can use your service, so that they don’t waste time trying to apply for a benefit or something that they don’t actually meet the requirements for.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so now I feel like I, I know what it’s made up of, I know what those words mean. But why are design systems good for government? And in a previous presentation I found in the Google Drive in my research, you said the national motto of design system teams is ‘efficiency, consistency and usability’

 

Tim Paul:

Oh yeah, I did say that didn’t I?

 

Laura Stevens:

Would, is that why they’re good or have you changed your mind? 

 

Tim Paul:

I guess, no that’s almost been one of the most stable beliefs that we’ve held throughout the whole kind of time we’ve been developing these resources. There, there do seem to be 3 pretty stable fundamental user needs that things like design systems are good at meeting. And, and that’s that public services needs to be efficiently built, we don’t want our tax payers’ money to be wasted in people like reinventing the wheel up and down the country in different teams.

 

They need to be of a high quality. So they need to be really accessible and usable. And they need to be consistent with each other. So one of the big reasons that we made GOV.UK in the first place was to try and create a single unified consistent user experience for all government services because that helps people to be familiar with those services, which means that it makes them more usable. But it also kind of fosters trust because it’s much easier to recognise when you’re using a legitimate government service if they all look the same. 

 

And the way that design systems help with those things is that you have this common suite of components and patterns that are ready made, pre-built, they’ve already been tested for things like usability and accessibility. And so that lifts up the quality because people are re-using existing things, it means that they’re not developing them themselves so that makes teams more efficient and productive. And again because they’re re-using the same suite of components and patterns, it means that different services made by different teams in different parts of the country in different departments, are all consistent with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that’s a point that I wanted to pick up on, is because I think as a user coming to GOV.UK, it looks like it’s just one big website.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

But it’s actually being managed, and being delivered simultaneously, by different teams up and down the UK. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes. So like you say GOV.UK presents as this single, quite large website that’s full of different services and information and that’s entirely intentional, that was always the vision for GOV.UK. But we, anybody who’s worked on it knows that under the hood, it’s hundreds and hundreds of separate websites and they're owned and managed by different teams in different departments up and down the country. There is no single tech stack for the public sector or for government, there’s hundreds and hundreds of different ones and we don’t try to control what that stack should be. 

 

And so the challenge that we’ve always faced is like how do we let all of those teams work pretty much independently of each other, but deliver something which is coherent and consistent and feels like a single user experience. And this is, this is what design systems are really good at because they, they provide this centralised resource that all teams can draw upon and contribute back to. 

 

So not every organisation, or large organisation, requires a design system necessarily but I think government is maybe almost the best example of an organisation that can benefit from, from a tool and a service like this.

 

Laura Stevens:

So yeah, we’ve got GOV.UK as this, appearing as one site but actually being operated by lots and lots of different teams up and down the country. So is that who’s using the Design System, all these different service teams?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, so we think that most users of the Design System are probably designers or developers working in, on, in services teams in different departments up and down the country. And we’ve tried lots of different ways to measure usage, it’s important that we know who’s using our service and how and what problems they might be facing, so that we can improve the service for them.

 

So one thing we have looked at in the past is, is web traffic. That’s just visitors to the Design System website. And that’s quite useful for showing month on month growth. I think since we launched, we’ve grown the number of visitors to the site by about 250%. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So impressive figures.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, yeah! It’s, we’re happy with that.

 

Laura Stevens:

I wanted to ask about the community element of the Design System. So people are able to contribute their own patterns and how, so in terms of the number of patterns or number of components now, are most of them done in GDS or do, are they generally done from people who have contributed? How does that work? 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. So from the outset really, we wanted to make sure that what we built was owned by the community of designers and developers in government, and was easy to contribute back to. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that we’re, GDS is at the centre of government and that’s really helpful as a way to kind of propagate out best practice and so on, but it does mean that we’re kind of one step removed from the actual end users of citizen facing services and staff systems and so on. It’s really the teams in the other departments that are closest to those users. And so we really rely on them to feedback into the Design System about, about whether components or patterns are working or not. Maybe they’ve found ways to improve upon them, maybe they have ideas for brand new components and patterns that, that we don’t realise are needed. And so like I say, from the very beginning we were trying to figure out ways to, to kind of foster a community of collaboration and contributors. 

 

And so we initially populated the Design System with maybe about 30 or 40 components and patterns that we already knew were needed by government. Some of those we brought in from our previous design tools. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

But since then we’ve had about 18 new components and patterns published over the last year and a bit. And I think of those 18, about 13 of them have been external contributions. So things that have been built by people in service teams somewhere else in government, from MoJ [Ministry of Justice] or DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] or HMRC [HM Revenue and Customs] and so on, and then contributed back to the Design System. 

 

And so we from kind of experience with our previous tools, our legacy products, that contribution is difficult and it certainly doesn't happen for free and it doesn't happen at all unless you do a lot of work to facilitate it and so on. So we put a lot of effort into developing the necessary processes and the governance and the assurance so that when people made a contribution, they knew what to expect and they knew the criteria that they needed to meet and that there were people available to support that contribution. And then other people who are available to kind of assure the quality. 

 

So what we’re hoping is this, by this, by making this process really open, it kind of encourages trust in what we’re doing, and it means that the work that we’re publishing isn’t biased, in favour of any one department and so on. And that it, and that it actually reflects the needs of teams in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

So how does it make you feel having so many patterns and contr-and components now being able to be contributed? Because, this, this hard work of making it decentralised, making it open is working.

 

Tim Paul:

It, I think it is working, I think we’ve learnt a lot along the way. We’ve certainly learned that it’s harder than we thought it would be. I mean we thought it would be hard, but it’s even harder than we thought it would be. I think perhaps we were tempted to think in the early days that contribution was like a shortcut to scaling.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

That like by opening our doors and letting people contribute, we could grow rapidly and it would like solve all our problems that way. And actually over the last year or so, I think what we’ve realised is that facilitating and assuring contributions is often as much work as doing the work yourself. We should probably have realised that at the time. And so I think it does let us scale but not to the extent that perhaps we thought it would.

 

So yeah, we think that aside from scaling, there are other real concrete benefits to, and I’m encouraging contribution on one of those, is that when people make successful contributions to the Design System, they tend to be pretty strong advocates so they almost act as like people doing engagement in departments on our behalf.

 

But also, and perhaps more importantly, the more people from service teams in other departments make contributions to the Design System, the more representative the Design System is of what those teams need. And so it just really helps us make sure that our product is actually genuinely meeting the needs of our users. 

 

If we were doing all the work ourselves in the centre, then, then there’d be a really strong risk that what we were producing was only really meeting the needs of the teams that we were closest to. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that leads very nicely on. Because we’re now going to hear a clip from somebody who uses the Design System who isn’t from GDS.

 

Tim Paul:

Ah.

 

Laura Stevens:

It’s from Adam Silver, who previously worked at the Ministry for Justice, or MoJ Digital. So yeah and MoJ is the second largest of the 24 ministerial departments, so it’s a big department.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And yeah, he’s going to talk about using the GOV.UK Design System and also about the MoJ specific Design System as well. 

 

Adam Silver:

I’m Adam Silver, I’m an Interaction Designer working at the Department for Education, and previously I’ve worked at MoJ Digital and HMCTS [HM Courts & Tribunals Service] as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could I talk to you about your work with the GOV.UK Design System on the service claim for the cost of a child’s funeral, which is a highly emotional service and also one that had to be delivered at pace in 6 weeks in fact. So how did having this centralised system help you in that?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah so we used the MoJ form builder, which is a tool that lets you create and deploy digital forms live, live to a URL without spinning up your own dev team. And under the hood, that form builder uses all of the components and patterns of from the GOV.UK design system. So that meant we didn’t have to spend a whole load of time thinking about text boxes, radio buttons and all of, all of the good stuff that’s already been solved brilliantly. And we could just focus on the specific needs of our service, and filling in the gaps where the GOV.UK Design System didn’t have a solution for that.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so in that way, was it saving you time, was it saving you hours of work, what was it helping you with?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, it saved, saved a lot of time. Because instead of focusing on all those things we could focus on just the needs of our service. So for example, we needed to think about how to ask users for their bank details because we needed to make a payment for them for their claim. And we also focused on things like how to upload files because they had to provide evidence for their claim by uploading copies of their receipts. And those, those 2 particular components and patterns aren’t covered really in the GOV.UK Design System. So that’s where we could really focus our attention.

 

And the other thing was that when we were doing an accessibility audit before we launched, we could focus most of our attention on the new patterns that we knew might not be up to the level of quality, or level of accessibility, that all of the other components that, like the text boxes and radio buttons in the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

Just that it’s so, so real, it’s just so good. Just the quality of the guidance, the quality of the patterns, the components themselves is excellent. It plays really nicely into the prototype kit. And when I have worked on department specific design systems, it plays nicely with those ‘cause. So we’ve, we’ve... At HMCTS and MoJ Digital, we had our own department design systems and we had to extend and build on top of the GOV.UK Design System. So that was, that was another really good thing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Could you sort of speak then to how important having this centralised GOV.UK design system is to different departments across government?

 

Adam Silver: 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean we have several services at MoJ that were asking people for their bank details. And during our research there are many many government departments that have many many services of their own that are also asking for their bank details. So there is a lot of duplication of effort there and a lot of inconsistency between them. Not, not major inconsistency but little inconsistencies and those can, those things can, can add up to creating a less than ideal, tricky user experience. 

 

So having that centralised and standardised in GOV.UK Design System adds a tremendous amount of value along with everything else that is centralised in, in the system.

 

Laura Stevens:

How does the community behind the design system help you in your work?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, so well, that’s, it’s majorly helpful. It’s one of my favourite things about working in gov [government] actually, is, is the huge design community who are just willing to, to help. On, on Slack, there’s like thousands of people on there and they’ve, there’s always somebody that’s either come across your exact problem or they’ve come across something similar and can help out.

 

And then the backlog itself, or, or the more specific help around the design system, I mean the team are real-super friendly. You get to know them individually, they’re always there to, to help. And having someone dedicated on support each, each day on Slack is, is massively massively helpful, knowing that you can go to one place to get help is, yeah, I can’t, I can’t just, I can’t commend it enough really. It’s super valuable to me and it’s, I know that it’s been super valuable to other people I’ve worked with as well. 

 

The community backlog is really good because if there isn’t something in the design system then you know that there’s going to be...well there’s a very very good chance that somebody has put their own designs into the backlog. Just some screenshots, just some explanation and then some discussion. And that, that will get you going so you don’t have to start, you’re never, you’re never really starting something from scratch because somebody has always done something. And somebody, sorry. Sometimes somebody has done more than something. There’s, there's a lot of contributions on some of the backlog tickets as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So Kellie Matheson, who works at MoJ Digital, also spoke at Services Week 2020 about having two Design Systems and working with that. How do you, how, what’s been your experience of using two design systems at once?

 

Adam Silver:

So it’s not, it’s not the ideal situation. It’s because, the reason why I think design systems appear in departments is, is because, well for 2 reasons. One is that GOV.UK Design System just can’t go fast enough in accepting contributions which is kind of what I was talking about earlier. They’re just not resourced enough I don’t think. It takes a lot of effort to build out a component.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Adam Silver: 

So that, that’s one reason where a department could move a little bit faster. Quality might be a tad lower but they can move a bit faster. Because they’re not worrying about the needs of the whole of government, they’re just worrying about the needs of their department of the needs of a programme within a department, sometimes that’s the case. And the other reason is because there are literally department specific patterns. But I see it as a temporary solution while, until the GOV.UK Design System can pull those patterns in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you, on your blog post, you also contributed a pattern along with your colleagues Amanda Kerry and Gemma Hutley, what was that pattern?

 

Adam Silver: 

That was how to ask users for their bank details. So as part of the, as part of the Child Funeral Fund service that we were designing, the main, the main point was that the user is claiming back the costs. So to do that they need to provide their bank details and that way we can, during the claims process, make that payment to them. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And what was it like to contribute your own pattern to that, or your team's pattern to that?

 

Adam Silver:

The reason why I wanted to contribute the bank details pattern was because while we were designing the service, there was no actual pattern existing for the bank details. And we looked in the backlog and we talked to people across government and in our own department as well, and there was no, there was no solid example of how to, how to ask for it. There was lots of different good examples but there was no one way. So that’s something that we had to tackle during the 6 week period. 

 

And so it would have been a real, it would have saved us a lot of time if that did, if that pattern was part of the GOV.UK Design System. So we thought ok well look, we’ve learnt quite a bit about it by searching around what other people have done, and we made a decision ourselves for our service. So why don’t we use what we’ve learnt, work a little bit harder and contribute it back. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So I’m sitting here with Tim Paul...And so you can ask him anything, what do you ask him?

 

Adam Silver:

Hi Tim, I would ask you how to quantify the value of a design system?

 

Laura Stevens:

So a nice easy question there. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, thanks Adam! 

 

Laura Stevens:

But I did actually hear there was, I did actually see this was, this was your talk in Services Week 2020, wasn’t it?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. So first of all, that was really good to hear from him. And yeah. One of the things we’ve always known that we need to do, and any team will need to do, is to somehow quantify the benefits of the thing that you’re delivering. Design systems are no exception. But it is quite hard to do that because of the nature of the service and the products I think. They’re not transactional services, you can’t watch people kind of go through them, people aren’t signed in when they use it and so measuring how many people are using your service and product is tricky enough.

 

And then quantifying the actual material benefits is also not that easy. It’s all about productivity and that’s quite a hard thing to measure. These aren’t small tasks that can be done in a few minutes where you can, can easily measure how much faster people get. These are tools which help people over the course of days and weeks and months in quite unpredictable and subtle ways. 

 

So we’ve always struggled a little bit. Although I think this quarter we’ve gotten a little bit better at this stuff. And so we were joined by Roxy, who’s a Product Manager in GDS, and she’s really helped us deliver a kind of economic model and, and a business case for how, how much benefit the Design System is, is giving people. And so we did a fair amount of research, we did lots of analysis of things like repos on Github. 

 

And we fed all of this information into an economic model, we worked with an economist called Parri. We, we, we had lots of other data points. Our user researcher Rosie did, at quite short notice, did some really good research where we interviewed around 10 designers and dev-developers from different departments, and we got them to talk about their experience of using our tools. We got them to do the very uncomfortable thing of like trying to, trying to tell us how much more or less productive they were using our tools and not using our tools.

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Which is a, it’s a really tough ask. But people did tell us and we got enough data points that we figured taking an average and going with a conservative version of that average was sufficient. And so feeding all of this stuff together, and thinking about how many teams are actually using our products and for how long and so on, we got to a kind of round figure of, we think we’re probably saving the government about £17 million pounds a year right now 

 

And that’s based on the assumption that without the Design System, government would need to spend about that much money to deliver the same services of a similar quality. So yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And were you, did you think the figure would be about £17 million or did you...

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah..I don’t know. I guess it was higher than maybe I was expecting.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. But one of the things we’re really keen to do is focus as much as we possibly can on, on the more qualitative benefits of Design Systems.

 

Laura Stevens:

Sure.

 

Tim Paul:

Rather than treating them as a kind of efficiency tool. They definitely do help teams work more productively but what we’re really hoping is those teams use their excess capacity to deliver better services. And so Adam kind of touched on that. Because they don’t have to worry about checkboxes, and radio buttons and headers and footers and making those all accessible and usable, they can spend that time that they’ve saved focusing on the actual service itself, and the content design, and the service design and the policy design and so on. And that’s really where the gains are to be had for individual service teams.

 

Laura Stevens:

Adam also referenced about how there are other individual organisations using their own design systems, they’ve made up their own design systems. Why do you think places have created their own versions?

 

Tim Paul:

There have always been other design resources made by other teams and departments in government, and that should come as no surprise. For the most part these are people with quite similar missions and goals to ourselves.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

They’re trying to solve the same problems but at the level of their individual programme or department. And so a couple of years ago when we were initiating this work, we made a conscious decision to, to not treat them as rivals or competitors or in some way a symptom of failure. They’re really just people who are trying to solve the same problem.

 

And so we, r-rather than go around and try and s-shut them down or anything like that, we made friends with these people, these people are now contributors and we try and work closely together with them 

 

Laura Stevens:

And not only is the GOV.UK Design System helping in central government, but it’s also being, helping across the public sector in local government and the NHS. And we’re now going to hear from Emma Lewis, from Hackney, about her experience of using the Design System in a local authority. 

 

Emma Lewis:

I’m Emma Lewis, I am the Lead Frontend Developer at the London Borough of Hackney. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

What is the London Borough of Hackney doing with design systems?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So we have our own Hackney Design System and Hackney Pattern Library, and both of those are based on top of GOV.UK Design System and GOV.UK frontend respoistry. So we have our pattern library is called LHB Frontend. Which is essentially a copy of GOV.UK frontend which also imports GOV.UK frontend and we build on top of that. 

 

So we have a bunch of different components, some of which are basically identical to the GOV.UK components but they have sort Hackney, ‘Hacknified’ styles or small colour changes, spacing tweaks, things like that. We have some components that are actually identical to GOV.UK and some components that are completely new to Hackney because they're more local government focused.

 

Laura Stevens: 

What have been the benefits to you working in local government, for using a central government design system?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I mean it’s been huge. So having all of these things just out of the box sort of we can use, it’s such an enormous time saver. But also having things like we, you know, we know they are accessible. So it means the services that we’re providing to residents and staff are so much better than they would have been otherwise. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I think a lot of people respond to with the GOV.UK Design System is also that community element of it. Has that helped you as well at the council?

 

Emma Lewis: 

Enormously. There’s no-one else really experienced at frontend development that I work with, and having that community of people who I can ask questions to, is such a positive thing. And likewise I am so grateful for the GOV.UK Design System that it means I want to contribute and I think other people feel like that. 

 

So I’ve contributed a couple of pull requests that are like really really tiny minor changes but feels good to do that. And it’s something that I want to do. And I think you see that with other people in the community who aren’t necessarily working centrally at GDS but have benefited from it so want to contribute something.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Why is having a design system a good thing for local government?

 

Emma Lewis: 

It’s...there are lots of different reasons. The main, the first reason is consistency. So it means that you know, any of our products that use that design system are going to look the same and that means, that’s really good for lots of different reasons. It means we’re not duplicating code in lots of different places. So you know, if something changes we don’t need to update it in loads of different places, there’s just a central place where all of that stuff comes from. And that’s something that developers love.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

But also I think accessibility is a huge thing. The time and resourcing that goes into making a design system like GOV.UK, like I’ve never seen the amount of effort that goes into a component be put into that kind of thing outside of a design system. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And so making sure that it is accessible means that it’s usable by all of our residents and that’s really important. And we, one of our missions at Hackney is to create digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And in order to do that, they need to be available to work for everyone and that’s like incredibly important.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So this is a bit of a, like a retrospective question. What do you wish you knew, or to anybody who is listening from a local authority, from a local borough, before you started creating the Hackney Pattern Library?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I think 2 things that spring to mind. One of which is how important your decisions are when you start doing something like that. So I think I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it can be to change things down the line. And this is something that...so Nick [Colley] and Hanna [Laasko] who work on GOV.UK frontend actually we’re really kind and came into Hackney to talk to us about the design system. And they were talking about how hard it is, or how bad it is to make breaking changes.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

So you know, changes to the design system or pattern library that are going to break things for users of the older versions. And that’s something that I wasn't, I hadn’t really thought about much until that conversation. And now, we’re sort of 6 months into our first version of our pattern library, and I’m starting to see, ‘oh I wish I’d done that differently’. And you know really feeling empowered to take the time at the beginning and think about those considerations about how you’re doing something and whether it is the right thing and what possible use cases there might be down the line, can be really helpful.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how, what are people using it, what sort of stage are you at?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So I’m doing some work at the moment with our mapping team, who create all sorts of maps for residents and for staff to look at, from things like where water fountains are, are in the borough to planning applications and all sorts of different things. And we’re coming up with, I suppose sort, it’s sort of similar to a design system in a way, we’re trying to come up with this sort of map template that we can use to show all different kinds of data. And I was just showing them really quickly yesterday how to use the design system to put a header and footer on the page, and their faces were just like lit up. It was so exciting that this was suddenly all available to them. 

 

Like using the GOV.UK design system has been an incredible time saver. Like I can’t, we wouldn’t have a pattern library now if we’d had to build everything from scratch. It just. We have so many different projects on and we don’t have the people to build something like that, and by having that, it’s mean that, not only that we can use it on projects going forward, but we’re also massively reducing the amount of time it takes to build all those individual projects as well. So it’s been, it’s just been enormous in terms of the time it saved and like I said, the community around it. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

The support that’s been provided with it. 

 

Tim Paul:

That was really really nice to hear that. It’s so, so gratifying I think to all of us on the team when other people reuse our work. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

It’s one of the best things about working in government and in the public sector is that we can be happy about the fact that people are stealing our work. In fact we kind of strongly encourage it. So yeah, that’s, that’s great. It’s, it’s doing exactly what we hoped it would do. 

 

So we’ve known for quite a while there’s huge potential beyond central government for, for the work that we’re doing, not just ourselves but alongside our contributors, to, to benefit local government and even as far as international governments. We’ve, we’ve got I think we know about 5 different local authorities which are in some way using GOV.UK Frontend, and we’ve got a couple of other governments from other countries who are using our work as well. So this is really really good.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in both those clips, both Emma and Adam, they both spoke about accessibility and how having it tested to the level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that right?

 

Tim Paul:

That’s correct, yeah. 

 

So this is, this has turned out to be a huge driver I think for adoption of the Design System because there this standard called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it’s been around for a while, it’s in version 2.1 now. But the thing that has changed recently is that meeting level double A of that standard has now become an actual requirement, not just of central government services but the whole of the public sector by this September. 

 

And so suddenly there’s a real strong need by teams everywhere to make their services fully accessible. And that’s pretty difficult. There’s lots you can do it make it easier like building in accessibility from the very beginning is probably the best way you can make your life easier here. Retrofitting accessibility is, is always a terrible experience for everybody. 

 

But it turns out that making even simple things like buttons fully accessible across the full range of assistive technologies, devices and browsers, is actually pretty involved, difficult work. You’ve got lots of testing to do, you’ve got, the state of assistive technologies at the moment is still probably not as mature as it could be, which means there are lots of weird little bugs and kinks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Funny little idiosyncrasies across all the different technology stacks. And so the work that we do in the centre is to do all of that testing and iron out all of those bugs and figure out how to make these things work across all of the assistive techs that we know that people use. And that level of work, that depth of work is probably not a thing that an individual service team could or should be spending its time doing. They’ve got the full service to worry about and they really shouldn’t be spending the amount of time that we can spend on, on making low level components fully accessible. 

 

So it’s one of the things I’m happiest about because it’s something that we can really contribute to.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in, you mentioned as well that we’re not only helping central government, local, NHS but we’re also going abroad as well. And in March 2019, the New Zealand Digital Service published a blog about how they used the GOV.UK Design System to help create their own. So, and they had a quote in there saying: “We decided not to reinvent the wheel so we’re building on the GOV.UK Design System, a system with years of development. It’s a mature and proven Design System with full rigour and accessibility and testing”. So what does having that sort of reach and international impact feel like for you and the team here at GDS?

 

Tim Paul:

It’s really nice, it’s kind of flattering. Yeah it also feels a little bit scary.

 

I think Emma alluded to the issue of having dependencies and breaking changes and things like design systems. And that’s a thing that we’ve experienced as well. So if you’re working on a service team in an agile environment, then the idea that you can iterate rapidly and fail fast and all of that, it’s great, it works really well. It doesn’t quite translate when you’re building a central code resource because if you’re iterating rapidly, if you’re failing fast, if you’re making lots of breaking changes, then you’re disrupting the work of everybody who’s relying on your code base. And so we end up being a lot more conservative, we end up moving slower and at a much measured kind of careful pace. And that’s because we are intensely aware that everybody using our tools is going to be disrupted by any breaking changes we make.

 

And so when we hear that you know, another country or local government authority is using our service, it’s really really good but it really hammers home to us how careful we have to be not to break things for them as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think there’s a way of fixing that? Or is that just an inherent problem with having a central design system?

 

Tim Paul:

I think probably the way to address that challenge is to not try to create some uber design system for the world, which would be the egotistical response to that challenge. 

 

You know the internet is supposed to be made up of many parts loosely coupled, and that’s what we should be trying to do here. So making sure that people can use our tools as the foundation for the things they need, and that we have nice productive feedback mechanisms between, between those. That’s probably the right way to approach this.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there anything where you’ve seen the Design System used in a way that you just never expected it to be used, or it popped up somewhere that you...

 

Tim Paul: 

We’re, we’re sometimes asked about doesn’t, don’t, don’t these products make it really easy to make fake versions of GOV.UK, which is a really valid question. And the answer is yes, they do. They make it easy for anybody to make things look like GOV.UK. But to be honest if your motivations are to trick people, then it’s always been pretty easy to make fake versions of a website. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

So we’re not making it that much easier for the scammers, but we’re making it a lot easier for the service teams who are building legitimate services. But yes, every now and then we see, we see a dodgy looking GOV.UK site and we see our own code in there, and that’s kind of weird but you know there’s a whole bit of GDS which is dedicated to spotting that stuff and getting it taken down so.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you so much to Tim to coming on today and also to Emma and to Adam for talking about the GOV.UK Design System. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcript of Podbean. 

So thank you again and goodbye.

 

Tim Paul:

Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

January 30, 2020

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, and the first one of the decade. My name is Laura Stevens and for regular listeners of the podcast, I now have a new job title as Creative Content Producer here at GDS.

 

And for the first podcast of 2020 we’re going to be speaking about accessibility. Everybody has to interact with government, people cannot shop around and go to different providers so there’s an obligation for government to make its services as accessible as possible. At GDS accessibility is considered in everything we do. It’s one of our design principles, we publish accessibility guidance on GOV.UK and we want to make sure there are no barriers preventing someone from using something.

 

And to tell us more about accessibility at GDS, I have Rianna Fry and Chris Heathcote. Please can you both introduce yourselves and what you do here at GDS. So Rianna first.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, so I’m Rianna and I am a Senior Campaign Manager here at GDS. So my job is helping to tell more people about all the great stuff that GDS does. And one of the main things at the moment is accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And Chris?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Hi, I’m Chris Heathcote, I’m a Product Manager and Designer at GDS. So I’m running the team that will be monitoring websites for accessibility going forward.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes, and there’ll be more on that later in the podcast.

 

So I just thought a good place to start, because as I mentioned GDS has to design for everyone, so to give a sort of sense of the needs of the population we’re designing for I have a few statements for you both. And I’m going to ask you whether they’re true or false. 

 

  1. So true or false, 12 million people in the UK have some kind of hearing loss.

 

Rianna Fry: 

True.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true. Second statement. 6.4 million people in the UK have dyslexia. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true as well.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, it does.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true as well. And thirdly, 2 million people in the UK have significant sight loss. 

 

Rianna Fry:

True. 

 

Chris Heathcote:

At least 2 million I would have thought, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. You are correct, they’re all true.

 

Rianna Fry:

Do we, do we win something?

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m afraid I didn’t bring a prize and now I’m being shamed, I’m sorry. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Right, OK. Sorry.

 

Laura Stevens: 

But all these stats are from the GDS accessibility empathy lab. And this is a space at GDS which helps raise awareness about accessibility, and also is an assistive technology testing space. And there’s another poster in the lab that says when you design services, you need to think about permanent, temporary and situational accessibility needs. 

 

What does that mean?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So I think I’ll touch on situational accessibility needs. So for me that was one of the most sort of light bulb moments when I came to work on this project with Chris and the rest of the team. So often when we talk about accessibility, I think a lot people naturally think about disabilities that people might have, like motor disabilities or sight impairments for example. 

 

But obviously at some point, they’re, we’re in situations that prevent us from being able to use digital services, perhaps in the way that they’re initially intended. So if you just think about social media. So my background is in digital marketing so thinking about videos. Obviously captions are massive and subtitles for videos because when you’re on the tube, you can’t always hear what you’re listening to.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So thinking about those kind of things was really sort of key for me, you know. When we build things or create content, we want as many people to see and use these things as possible. So considering all the factors that may prevent people from using something in one way, I think that’s what it’s about.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah, I mean at GDS we’ve always considered that wherever there is a web browser people will try and use that to interact with government.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So right from the start, we saw people doing passport applications on their PlayStations. And we’ve seen…

 

Laura Stevens:

Really?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. So we’ve seen mobiles, you know are now more than 50% of traffic often. And so we, what we, you know accessibility is just one way to make sure that people can always use the services and the content that we provide. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah I think definitely what you’re saying about mobiles as well. Because I looked up Matt Hobbs, who’s the Head of Frontend Development at GDS, tweeted about the November 2019 GOV.UK stats, and mobile was over 50%. It was 52.86%. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I guess part of this is also thinking like why is it particularly important that government is a leader in accessible services. Like what, why is that so important?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean as you said at the beginning, you know you don’t choose to use government, you have to use government. So you can’t go anywhere else. So it’s, it’s our obligation to make sure that, that everything is accessible to everyone. And it does have to be everyone, and especially those with disabilities, or needing to use assistive technology, tend to have to interact with government more. 

 

So we do have an obligation for that.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think if you think about it, these are public services. They’re online public services so they need to be able to use, be used by the public not exclusive groups. And I think that’s what it's all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And sort of on that, or leading on from that, I wanted us to talk about GDS as leaders in digital accessibility. So at GDS, we’ve, we set up the cross-government accessibility community, the Head of Accessibility for government sits at GDS and as mentioned, it’s one of our design principles. So we want to design for everyone. 

 

And from your work here at GDS, do you have any sort of examples of where GDS has led in accessibility? So for instance you were talking there about assistive technology, and I know that GOV.UK, there’s a lot of work done on GOV.UK to make sure that it works with assistive technology.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, I mean especially as sort of the standards for accessibility have changed over the last 7, 8 years that GDS has existed. We’ve always made sure that our code works on everything and for all assistive technology. And also we’ve made you know, now with the [GOV.UK] Design System made it possible for the, all services in government to take that and so they don’t have to do the work as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how can people use the Design System, if they’re listening and they don’t quite know what the Design System is. Can you explain it a bit please?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So I mean if you go to the GOV.UK Design System site, it provides basically all the code you need to make something look and feel like GOV.UK. You know we’ve always said that GOV.UK is a single domain for government, and that services in central government should look and feel like GOV.UK and be linked from GOV.UK.

 

And if you use our code, it means you get all the usability and accessibility benefits that we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to make sure work really well. And you get that basically for free. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and it’s also I guess you’re sharing the, as you were just talking about, you’re sharing the hard work. So if you’re a smaller organisation or you don’t have that sort of technical capability, you’re saying it’s already there. We can, you can just go to the...

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, we saw that every, basically every service in government was spending 6 months or more, you know writing code that’s basically the same.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That’s why the Design System exists, and is so popular. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And have you seen any sort of examples of…

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think, I think you mentioned this near the beginning as well, the accessibility empathy lab.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s sort of a space for people to really experience some of the impairments that people may have, and really put them in that space. And I think that really helps to bring things to life. Because it’s really easy to forget or not consider what some needs might be. And I’ve been along to some of the tours there and it’s, it’s great to see people in all different roles coming from all different kinds of organisations sort of using the different personas that are in that lab, to think differently about how web pages should be built.

 

And also even you know, the words that we use. And I think that sort of in line with what Chris was saying, there’s also the, the style guide. Because we often forget as a communicator, plain English is really important, that’s like a basic thing.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

That most people know about and practice, but don’t necessarily consider as part of accessibility. And I know when I worked at the council we used the GOV.UK Style Guide as like the basis because we knew that there was a lot of research and it’s ongoing.

 

And also like as Chris said, you know it’s not just people within GDS that inform this work. It’s across government and also some of the wider public sector. There’s great communities that are sharing really great work in this space, and that all feeds in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

No I think that’s really interesting as well what you’re saying because you came from a local government background into central government. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you were able to use some of those sort of GDS or cross-government tools, and you were able to pick them up and use them. That’s really good.

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah, absolutely yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And, and you mentioned there that a lot of the work in accessibility it’s not, it’s not, even though a lot of it sits at GDS, it’s contributed to by people across the accessibility community across government. 

 

We’ve got a cross-government accessibility community, which has more than 1,200 people in the Google group. And are you involved in the community Chris or?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well I’m on the email..

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And I will, and I respond to questions about the accessibility monitoring. Yeah, I mean it’s I think, because accessibility cuts across so many different jobs in government, so it isn’t just the people that, that do accessibility auditing day in and day out and,but we now have those across government. 

 

But you know, all frontend developers, all designers, all user researchers tend to need to know something about accessibility, and have questions and even though they’re not you know, full time professionals in this, the community’s there to help everyone understand what we’re looking for and how to consider accessibility in everything they do.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you think that’s sort of been a shift because Rianna was mentioning like how in the lab, you get people of all different job titles in, and that’s sort of shift in making accessibility part of everyone’s job, not just people who have accessibility in their job title. Like neither of you 2 have accessibility in job title for instance.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. I mean I think that’s been a big change like it was with design before and user research. It isn’t just a separate specialist, even though we need the specialists to you know, do the work.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah yeah, of course.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

It’s something that everyone has to consider as they do their job. So especially like frontend developers, we expect them to be testing their code for accessibility at, just as they are doing it. Which means that when they do do an audit and a specialist comes in and looks at the site, there shouldn’t be any surprises.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think that’s one of the, so Richard Morton, who’s the Interim Head of Accessibility across government, that’s one of the things that he says, is that actually the ambition for his role is that there won’t, in the future, need to be specialists necessarily because everybody has a, a level of understanding about it. 

 

Obviously that’s a long way off.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And also I guess he doesn’t want to talk himself out of a job.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah! Exact--and that I mean, he does follow it up with that.

 

But I think, I think that’s what’s really nice about the community is that you have got people, so for example the designer that I’ve worked on, Charlotte, with the campaign for accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Is this Charlotte Downs?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Charlotte Downs, yeah. So since she’s been working that, she’s just sort of, her mind has been blown by all this information that’s out there. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And she’s now a go to person with GDS for design - accessible design - particularly around PDFs. And I think that’s the thing, sort of as you sort of get into it, it’s really easy to become really passionate about accessibility because it’s all about doing the right thing. And I think particularly within GDS, and actually most digital based roles I would say, it’s all about users. And accessibility, that’s what it’s all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I’ve heard people refer to the PDF mountain in government. What does that mean and why is that related to accessibility?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean right from the start of GOV.UK, we saw that central government alone was publishing pretty much everything as PDFs. And PDFs vary in quality and vary in accessibility as well. It is possible to make more accessible PDFs. But generally we’ve always said things should be webpages, content should be on webpages and in HTML. But, and in central government we’ve been moderately successful in that. There’s still a lot of PDFs being published but we’ve reduced that, and especially in services, they tend not to use PDFs anymore.

 

So I think legislation is a good time for, for all public sector organisations to reflect on that and see how they can change some of their processes and how they publish information.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So changing a mountain into a molehill.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean we, I think you know there will always be some PDFs for certain reasons but the number of PDFs being published should go down.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So just thinking about stuff like that, as Chris says, changing processes. Is there a reason why we have to have this as a PDF format, why can’t it be HTML? I mean it, the campaign, it, it was the same you know. 

 

How do we make the supporter pack in HTML, it doesn’t look as pretty, which for creative people might be something, like a bone of contention, but ultimately we want people to be able to use it. So creating things and making things available in different formats if you have to have a PDF, is the right thing to do. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah and I think that’s sort of interesting as well with the creative side of things. Because obviously as government though you need to make it’s as accessible as possible and I think GOV.UK has won design awards so it shows that like, accessibility doesn’t mean that like design goes out the window, not at all. Like I think it was Fast Company put us at the top 10 designs of the decades in the 2010s. So..

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah I mean even when we won the Design Museum's Design of the Year award.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

You know we were on, we were called boring.com the next day. But you know we have a lot of designers working here in GDS, and there is an awful lot of design built into it even though it may look a bit plainer than other websites. But that’s because we’re totally focussed on usability and accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

There’s no point having a beautiful website if no-one can use it

 

Laura Stevens: 

I would just sort of, what I would like to sort of talk about is how accessible services help everyone. 

 

For instance we have GOV.UK content that’s now accessible via voice assistance. So I think there’s now more than 13,000 pieces of GOV.UK content that’s available via Google Home or Amazon Alexa. And why is that good for people, like why, why is that good having these sort of pieces anyone can access via voice?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean there’s a lot of people that can’t use a standard computer and a standard web browser. I mean and that, that ranges from having disabilities through to just not understanding how a computer works and not wanting to understand how a computer works.

 

So being able to access government information if not services yet, just through voice I think is, is really important.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say, personally as well, so a, a relative of mine recently was unwell and lost his sight. And he has an Alexa and so although it was still a difficult transition for him, him still being able to access things as soon as he got home really helped. 

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

And I think you know like Chris said, not everyone wants to use a computer as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Or if you’re sort of busy and out and about, sort of that situational side of things, it just makes things more accessible and more available for people, which is great. It’s easier right?

 

Laura Stevens: 

Chris, you alluded to this earlier that the sort of regulations have changed since GDS begun. And while accessibility has always been part of GDS’ work, there are new regulations that have come in quite recently, and these regulations mean public sector organisations have a legal duty to make sure their websites and apps meet accessibility requirements. 

 

And can you tell me a bit about them and sort of, what the key dates are with that and…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So this is a European-wide initiative that started in 2016. It’s now UK law. And any new websites that a public sector body makes, that's certainly in public, needs to be accessible now. And they should also publish something called an accessibility statement on their website that says how accessible they are and how to get in contact with them if you find any issues with them.

 

But then the big deadline is 23 September 2020, when all public sector websites, old and new, need to be accessible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how is this related to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which I called WCAG, but is that the correct way of pronouncing…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

...that acronym? So yeah, the web--oh sorry.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So WCAG is a W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] standard about web content accessibility. And it’s been updated pretty recently to version 2.1. And the standard that the legislation and we require is something called double A. So there are 3, 3 levels of accessibility mentioned in the guidelines - A, double A and triple A. 

 

And double A means that there should not be any major blockers to anyone being able to use the website. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Will the regulations apply differently to different parts of the public sector, for instance central government or to schools or to healthcare? 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

There are some differences. The legislation makes some exemptions especially, there is partial exemptions for schools and nurseries. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Although the way it’s written, actually they’re not quite as exempt as you might think.

 

Laura Stevens: 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Because a lot of people are doing stuff online, and if the online is the only route to them that has to be accessible. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

But generally the exemptions are, are quite small. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think what’s really important as well is that, I mean it’s this is sort of easy, easier for me to say I guess because I work in an organisation that really cares about accessibility and already has accessibility built in to a lot of the ways of working. But I think for me it’s sort of helpful to think about this as an opportunity. So I think this creates a really good excuse to educate people about why that’s important and also now that there’s law behind this...

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

that feeds into the Equality Act, and I mean that’s really important. If you’re going to pay to build a website, or spend a load of your time creating content, then you want to make sure that people can access that content or access that, access that service.

 

Why, why would you want to try and get around that? Because all you’re doing is reducing the amount of people that can access it. So I think you know, although I understand that sometimes there are reasons for that like time. I think this is about behaviour change, and also education, helping people to understand that. If you’re, if you’re opening your service up, you’re reducing costs that may be elsewhere because you’re making your website more efficient and work for people so that they can self-serve.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so do you think that’s why having an accessibility statement is a really good thing? Because you know how you’re saying this is a way of creating behaviour change. By the process of going through and creating accessibility statement, which is this statement on the website that says, this is why our service is accessible. And it also has to say, if I’m right, this isn’t accessible but this is how we’re working.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah because GOV.UK has an accessibility statement, doesn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. What we are trying to do is make sites accessible so pub--, so you know getting the information together and publishing an accessibility statement is a really good start to making sure that the website is accessible and remains as accessible as it changes. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say you know, I think that shows a commitment to making a change. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect all websites overnight to be completely accessible, because some of this stuff involves a lot of legacy things.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also PDFs, a lot of PDFs. But this, I, as I understand it, and I’m not an expert so Chris you might correct me on this, but that’s statements about saying you know, these areas aren’t right but this is our plan to fix them. And if you can’t access information here’s who you need to contact to get that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes. And that's an important part, you have that contact.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

A name or an email address that you can go forward to.

 

And this actually leads me nicely on, because this was, we chose accessibility in January because there was a loose news hook for the podcast that January is when enforcement and reporting will begin. And this is quite a big job to undertake so Chris could you kind of talk to me about this next bit of your role?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah so to make sure that people are taking the legislation seriously, in each country in Europe, so it’s not just the UK, there is a monitoring body set up. In the UK it was decided that GDS would host that. And that’s the team I’m setting up at the moment. 

 

So we have an obligation in, in the legislation as well. So we will be monitoring a number of public sector websites. It’s about...by 2023, it’ll be about 2,000 websites a year.

 

And what we do is most of that will be automated checking using automated accessibility checkers. But we know that that only covers 30 to 40% of accessibility issues and WCAG points. So we’ll be doing a bit of manual checking as well and, and for a certain amount of websites, we have to do a sort of fuller audit that’s more like a traditional accessibility audit.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And this is done on behalf of the Minister for Cabinet Office isn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So yeah, they’re the person that's mentioned in the legislation. And yes, we’ll be reporting to them about what we find.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you go through these websites, how do you get back in touch with them, do you create an accessibility report, how does that work?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So, so what we’re going to do is from the testing that we do, we’ll write a report. We’ll send that to the public sector organisation and start a conversation with them really about do they understand the report, do they see the same issues that we’re seeing, and what they’re going to do to fix them.

 

And hopefully that’s a constructive conversation and we can provide technical support where needed.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and would you also I guess point to some of the stuff on GOV.UK? There’s accessibility guidance there as well. Would you be using that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah absolutely. I mean, I mean both, both the stuff that we publish for central government like the Design System and the Service Manual. But also you know we are looking also for resources around the W3C publish and things like training that, that are starting to happen that we can point people to so that you know, they, they can fix the issues as quickly as possible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Say if a website has been found with accessibility issues, what would be a way of enforcing the findings of a report?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So we’re working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in England, Wales and Scotland, and for Northern Ireland it’s the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. They are actually doing the enforcing on accessibility because it, it, falls under the Equality Act, so they’ve been enforcing accessibility for, for a while. And so that’s their role.

 

However we will be enforcing whether they, the sites have accessibility statements or not because that’s an additional thing on top of the Equality Act.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So you’re gonna be very busy over the next year and onwards from there.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean it’s never ending. Yes we’re recruiting at the moment - the Audit Team. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Are you giving a plug on the podcast if anyone’s listening and they want to apply?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well we will, we, we’ll certainly have some roles opening over the next year.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how will you find this sample of websites, or do we not know this yet?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

We’ve spent quite a while coming up with a list of what is the public sector and what isn’t. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And also what websites they have. There’s another team in GDS called the Domain Management Team, who have also been trying to look at what websites government runs, and what the public sector runs. And they’re more tasked with making sure that the domains remain secure and are being used properly. 

 

But you know this list hasn’t existed before. So we’ve also approached it, we’ve crea--we’ve gathered lots of open data that government publishes around public sector organisations. And we’re using that to create a sort of master list of the public sector that we will then sample against. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Rianna you actually mentioned this earlier, and I know you’ve joined GDS relatively recently in the summer of last year. And sometimes I think accessibility can be landed on a person, one person in an organisation, and that it can feel quite overwhelming when suddenly there are regulations that people need to, and they need to learn a lot of knowledge quite quickly, how did you find that when you joined and you were given the accessibility campaign to manage? When you had to learn all this information, what did you find that was helpful or how did you find that process?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think I’ve been really lucky in that I was surrounded by experts at GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also there is so much information on GOV.UK. And I mean, that’s not a plug, it’s true. And so like I said before, Charlotte Downs for example, she, when she, when we started working on this together she did a load of research on different things.

 

Because I mean, even once you know it, even once you’ve been through some training on how to create an accessible document. When you’re knocking together a document, it’s really easy to forget. Like I said, it’s behaviour change. So I think it’s about checking in with other people and asking other people to just check over content.

 

You know I remember when I first started working on this project and I sent out a survey and I made an assumption that it was accessible and it wasn’t. And that was..

 

Laura Stevens: 

And it was a survey about accessibility?

 

Rianna Fry:

It was, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Oh, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

I mean it was a steep learning curve. Thankfully it was only live for about 2 minutes before I noticed.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And me and Richard [Morton] then worked together on some stuff, but I think that’s what it’s about, it’s about asking people to check in. And you know things aren’t always going to be perfect but that’s why it helps to be part of communities so that you’ve kind of got constructive friends

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

that can give you constructive feedback on how you can improve what you're doing. So I think, yeah it’s about seeing what’s out there and speaking to people and asking people to, for feedback on what you’re doing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I know we mentioned before the communities are very active, the blog posts are very active, but also so you’re running the campaign for accessibility, we’ve had 75,000 visits to the GOV.UK guidance since August 2019. And you’ve also created a campaigns pack, and is that for people, who who’s that for?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s for supporters. So for us, as Chris said this is a massive job, there are so many organisations that need to know about this. And the people that are potentially responsible for managing a public sector website aren’t necessarily in digital roles. They’re not necessarily people that GDS are talking to or aware of. 

 

So if you think about things like GP surgeries for example, they fall into the remit of public sector. Now my GP surgery definitely doesn’t have a digital team. So the, the point of the supporter pack is to try and get especially central government teams onboard, their engagement and communications teams on board and talking to people about the regulations.

 

So we’re trying to make it easier by bringing that information into one place, which is all the point of the campaign page. So we’ve tried to break it down into 4 steps. So signposting people to guidance that will help them to understand whether or not they’re going to be impacted. Believe it or not, some people aren’t sure whether or not they’re classed as a public sector organisation.

 

Then secondly deciding how to check the accessibility of their websites. Then making a plan to fix any problems and lastly publishing an accessibility statement, which really summarises the findings and the plans to fix any issues. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you’re saying there that this is all in one place, where is that place?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So it’s on GOV.UK/accessibility-regulations.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So if, so if I’m from the public sector I can go there and just…

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s an open web...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

...webpage. And I’m, I mean my information’s on the supporter pack so if there are any campaign people out there that want to talk to me, then I’m more than happy to share any additional resources that we’ve got, that we’re using internally and whatever else.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you have any sort of top tips, or from your work you’ve done in sort of starting this work on accessibility. Are there any sort of things where you’ve spoken to other organisations, you’ve been like oh that’s a good thing to share. Any best practice or anything like that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think that, that it isn’t just all..it isn’t just a single thing that people need to do. You know we understand that people have websites and they might need to retrofit some accessibility onto that but it is really about changing processes. 

 

So especially when we talk to people like local authorities, the number of people that publish on the website is quite large and it’s educating them to know how to make good PDFs, how to write well, how to, how generally how accessibility of content works. And making sure there’s a process to make sure that that happens. That needs to be in place as much as actually fixing the website and the technical aspects of accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think education is really important. So I think what helps is to tell, help colleagues across organisations to understand why they need to do certain things. 

 

And I think it helps that people, people have an awareness of the Equality Act, and understand when something is law. So I think that helps and I would say to try and use that to, yeah really educate people and try and get people on board internally.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So as a closing segment I thought it might be nice to ask both of you if there’s something in particular that motivates you to work in accessibility, or if there’s something you’ve come across in your work that’s made a real impact on you, and sort of galvanised you to keep going on this.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think we, what we see is when we talk to users, and we talk to users all the time, is it gives people independence. People can do things for themselves, they can self-serve, they can see the content on GOV.UK. And it’s, it’s something that they’ve you know, moving digitally has actually changed people’s lives. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, I think I’d echo that you know. And it’s important that organisations know about the regulations. So supporting those really hard working digital colleagues that spend a load of time researching what, what works for users, and a load of time trying to tell other people how to, you know why PDFs shouldn’t be used. 

 

So I think for me, that’s really important. And also just you know that lightbulb, seeing that lightbulb moment of people going ‘oh god, yeah we really should be doing this and being able to signpost them to the tools to be able to kind of put it into action.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you to Rianna and thank you to Chris for coming on the podcast today. I hope you’ve enjoyed being on the GDS podcast, a first for both of you.

 

Chris Heathcote:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. And thank you for choosing accessibility to be your first podcast of the decade. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Well I do.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Not just the year, the decade! I mean it feels like it’s really significant. This is going to be a podcast that people remember. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so yeah, you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

So thank you both again, and goodbye!

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Bye.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Thanks!

Government Digital Service Podcast #14: GDS Quiz 2019

Government Digital Service Podcast #14: GDS Quiz 2019

December 30, 2019

Sarah Stewart:

Hello and welcome to the GDS Podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart. Today’s podcast, the final one of 2019, is a special one, it’s GDS’s Year in Review. Last year, Angus and I went through the year very methodically picking out our highlights. It was quite fun. It’s my last podcast, so I wanted to do something better than quite fun. And what’s better than quite fun? A quiz! I’m going to host a quiz!

 

So I’m going to be asking 24 questions about GDS, 2 for each month. Obviously, the person with the most points will win. Producer Emily is going to keep score. So let’s meet our contestants.

 

Contestant number one, what’s your name, what do you do and where are you from?

 

Laura Stevens:

So my name is Laura Stevens. I’m a writer here at GDS. And I’m from a small village in Surrey called Tadworth.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What’s Tadworth known for?

 

Laura Stevens:

So it’s not known for very much, so I had to look this up before I came on the podcast. But it was referenced in the ‘Doomsday Book’ so it’s very old. In the ‘Doomsday Book’ it was known as having woodland worth 4 hogs. So you know, I don’t really know like what --

 

Sarah Stewart:

What a sum! 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, like I don’t really know what that equates to but I thought it was quite a fun fact.

 

Sarah Stewart:

You don’t see hogs very much anymore.

 

Angus Montgomery:

How many trees per hog?

 

Sarah Stewart:

And what kind of tree?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, and what kind of hog? I mean...

 

Angus Montgomery:

All good questions.

 

Sarah Stewart:

And Laura, what is your specialist subject at GDS would you say?

 

Laura Stevens:

So I would say my specialist subject would be design here at GDS. But I am wary of saying that because I know that Angus is also very into design and I feel like he may you know, show me up in this quiz and take all the design answers. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Which is a good segue into asking contestant number two, what’s your name and where do you come from?

 

Angus Montgomery:

Hello. I’m Angus Montgomery. I’m a Strategy Advisor and I live in Woodbridge in Suffolk. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Woodbridge. Isn’t that where the celebrities live? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Well, it depends on your definition of celebrity, I suppose. So Woodbridge’s most famous son was Thomas Seckford, who was an advisor to Elizabeth I. More contemporary famous sons include Brian Eno and Charlie from Busted.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh my gosh. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is Charlie the one with the eyebrows?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think so, yeah. The handsome one. He did a solo career.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. Fightstar.

 

Angus Montgomery:

That’s it, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s excellent Busted knowledge.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So Angus, what’s your specialist subject at GDS?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know, it sounds a bit creepy if I’m going to say it out loud but the people at GDS. Like I think that’s the thing that I’m most interested in, is all the people who work here and the things that they do.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So it’s good to meet you contestants. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Good to be here.

 

Sarah Stewart:

I need you to press the buzzer when you have the correct answer. 

 

Cue the tense intro music Emily, Producer Emily. Let’s do this. 

 

In January, we recorded a podcast with the Global Digital Marketplace team. They are helping to tackle corruption – a $2.6 trillion problem. The team visited 5 countries, talking to people at state and local level. Can you name all 5 countries? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Okay. I think I’ve got this: South Africa, Malaysia, Colombia, Indonesia… I’m going to fall down on the last one!

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think I know the last one.

 

Laura Stevens:

What’s the last one? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

No no no no, we can’t do that. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh so do I just..?

 

Sarah Stewart:

You’re compromising the integrity of the quiz. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Do I get a hint or do I just…?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Here’s your clue. Its name also features in the name of its capital city. Massive clue...

 

The answer was Mexico.

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s really annoying.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Mexico City. Okay. So, I’m afraid no one can take a point from that. 

 

Okay, next question. The first ever Services Week took place from 28th January to 1st February. It was a nationwide, cross-government event that explored how people could work together to deliver end-to-end user-focused services. Now, one of the workshops during Services Week was designed to improve online forms. It was a sell-out workshop but what was the name of that workshop? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Was it called Formapalooza? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct! One point to Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Boom.

 

Laura Stevens:

First one on the scoreboard, you know. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay, moving onto February now. In February, the GDS Academy turned 5 and launched a new course – Introduction to Artificial Intelligence [AI] in Government. Can you name an example of where AI is already being used in government? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Aren’t we using it here at GDS to do supervised machine learning on GOV.UK?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Excellent, Laura. One point.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Back in the game.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Next question. GovWifi is a common component that we all know and love. It provides free, secure wifi in public sector buildings. It’s used 2 million times a month. We noticed that it was also being accessed through which surprising device?

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it a device you would find in a home?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes, perhaps in the home of a teenager.

 

Laura Stevens:

PlayStation.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct answer. And actually, there were 6 PlayStations that were recorded.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Who’s brought a PlayStation in?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I don’t know. It could be in any public sector building. 

 

Next question. The 11th competition for the GovTech Catalyst opened in March. Technology firms were invited to apply to develop innovative solutions for a challenge submitted by Oxfordshire County Council but what was that challenge?

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it something to do with the traffic system? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

And driverless cars..?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! Yes! Well done. Next question.

 

A team, a new team was created for GOV.UK to maintain and operate the GOV.UK platform. What was the new team called? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it the Platform Health team? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct.

 

Sprint is GDS’s flagship conference. In April, we announced the agenda and that we would travel to 5 locations across the UK to discuss the impact of digital transformation on public services. Name those cities. Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

In order: Edinburgh, Cardiff, Leeds, Belfast and London. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

One point to Angus. I almost said Laura then.

 

Laura Stevens:

Give me all the points. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Shall we have a check in on the scores?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, let’s check in on the scores. Wow. Okay. Laura’s ahead. 

 

In April, there was an Unconference at GDS. People were invited to pitch and present on topics of their choosing. Richard Towers held a discussion on making coding more accessible to people at GDS. Which of the following is a programming language that we do not use at GDS? Ruby, Python, Node.js, Go, Java, C#, Scala. Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

C#?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

Did you know that?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know that much about programming languages. But I’ve heard people talking about the other ones.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. Well just to say, there was a trick answer in there as well. So for those people who really know their programming, we don’t use Scala anymore but there is an old project that’s still is in Scala but it’s not maintained. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Ooh I like that, a trick question.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay so this is May. GOV.UK Pay – a free and secure online payment service for government and public sector organisations – took its first payment for a service in a language other than English. For half a point, what was that language? And, for the full point, how do you say seamless integration in that language? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Welsh. I’m just going for the half point. I don’t, I don’t have the other half of it. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Not confident?

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m not confident. I’ve never spoken Welsh so I wouldn’t want to offend anybody. Do you have, do you know it?

 

Angus Montgomery:

No.

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t know. You knew about programming languages, so I thought you might also have-

 

Angus Montgomery:

Welsh knowledge? 

 

Laura:

Yeah, Welsh knowledge..

 

Angus Montgomery:

The two don’t always go together. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. Well, I’ve got it written down here and I don’t want to offend anyone either. It’s been quite a good year for common components, has it not?

 

Angus Montgomery:

It has. So, I mean, as well as GOV.UK Pay, you’ve got GOV.UK Notify, which is a great success and is used by more than half the local authorities across the UK.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. It helps them do things like sending letters, which can be really time-consuming and where mistakes can be made.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. With changing regulations affecting public sector accessibility requirements, we advised how to publish an accessibility statement but where can you find that? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

GOV.UK.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! In June, we’re halfway through.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah!

 

Sarah Stewart:

How fun. 

 

In June, a strategy and a guide were published. What was the name of that strategy and what was the name of the guide? I need the official names, please. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I think the first one is the Government Technology Innovation Strategy then it’s ‘A Guide to Using AI in the Public Sector’?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Laura has got the full point. 

 

In June, Kevin Cunnington, GDS’s Director General stepped down after 3 years leading the organisation. He took a new role on, at the International Government Service, and Alison Pritchard was named as Interim DG [Director General]. Can you tell me where in the world she was when she was offered the job? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think she was near Madagascar, wasn’t she, in the Indian Ocean?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I...I don’t think I can accept that.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh. She was on a boat in in, at sea. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

And well it...I’m going to accept Indian Ocean because she was sailing on a boat somewhere between Darwin and Christmas Island. So I would have accepted Timor Sea or the Indian Ocean. 

 

Okay, so technically this happened in June, July was a little bit quiet. 

 

So GDS’s step by step work on GOV.UK won a D&AD Award for Service Design. Please can you name my favourite step by step journey on GOV.UK? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Is it Reporting Found Treasure?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

I mean, even if I’d got in first, I would have actually been wrong. I thought it was actually Bring Your Pet to the UK.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Where would I be bringing it from?

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t know. You might have bought your pet abroad.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh yeah. I actually did look into dog rescue in Greece.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you know, clearly I could have been right. But alas, it was more finding treasure.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So what’s so good about step by step?

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, there are now 47 live, and obviously, it’s really good that they are winning awards and everything but also they’re being, they’re really helping people. They are also helping the other parts of GOV.UK like our voice assistant work. So now you can ask your Alexa or Google Home if you want to learn to drive a car. And yeah, it's helping people where they need it.

 

And it’s quite like, when I spoke to Kate [Ivey-Williams] and Sam [Dub] about it, Kate was saying what motivated her is that ease to make government like, as invisible as possible. So say you’re dealing with a very distressing situation, like somebody has passed away, you don’t want to be like dealing with any government admin at that point. And so if the step by step can just give you the answers that you need and tell you very clearly, that’s a really helpful thing to do for users.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What is your favourite step by step journey, Laura?

 

Laura Stevens:

My favourite step by step journey is quite a boring one but I like it because I’m on the video for it. It’s How to Drive a Car. I feature saying it into a phone. Then it got screened at Sprint 18.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Wow.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you know, me in this jumper, it’s quite an old jumper. I didn’t really expect to be used in filming that day. It’s been immortalised.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So if you want to have a visual picture of Laura, if you want to connect the voice to the face, watch that journey. It’s on YouTube.

 

In July we released, oh this is, actually, this next question could be in Laura’s advantage, just given your specialist subject for design. In July, we released new updates to the colours and font on GOV.UK. The GOV.UK colour palette is made up of 7 colours – grey, black, blue, red, yellow, green and white. Which 2 colours weren’t updated? Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Black and white?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

That is great knowledge.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Angus is in the lead.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yes! 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Wow.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh so I need to make a comeback?

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, Laura needs to make a comeback.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that because he’s got lots of half points? Trying hard but...

 

Sarah Stewart:

He’s not committing.

 

Angus Montgomery:

What’s that meant to mean?

 

Sarah Stewart:

In August we talked about work we had to do following July’s reshuffle. When there is a reshuffle, GOV.UK needs to update the information as quickly as possible. True or false – the GOV.UK team knows this information before the public?

 

Laura Stevens:

False.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. They find out at the same time as everyone else. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah July...during the reshuffle in July, because it was quite like a big change and the changes were coming quite like quickly, the team really had to step up. And so that’s working late nights, making sure that GOV.UK is always like the canonical source of information.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So they had to make updates to 100 individual ministers’ GOV.UK roles. They had to update ministers’ biographies. They had to add profiles to GOV.UK for people who hadn’t worked for Government before. They had to reorder the list of ministers on 22 department pages. And they had to reorder the Government Ministers page. And obviously there’s a lot of eyes on GDS, well on GOV.UK and GDS’s team, GDS’s work through that. So yeah, they did really well.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Go team. Ok, next question.

 

Alison took up the role of DG [Director General] at GDS and wrote an introductory blog post sharing a little bit about her past. It’s incredibly well written. Alison has a fantastic background in public service but what was her very first job serving the public?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I feel like I know this.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was in the blog post, if you read it. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know if it was her very first job but she was Minister Responsible for Cage Fighting at one stage, wasn’t she? 

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s quite a high entry as your first job. Minister for Cage Fighting. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Not Minister, obviously. She was a senior civil servant responsible for cage fighting in some capacity. 

 

Laura Stevens:

She was pulling pints…?

 

Sarah Stewart:

You can’t give them clues. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

I thought you said first job in the civil service. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

No. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh, first job.

 

Laura Stevens:

No. It was first job serving the public. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh so serving the public.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this a pun?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh!

 

Angus Montgomery:

You’re operating on a level that I’m not!

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! She was a barmaid when she was eight. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh. Is that...

 

Angus Montgomery:

Is that legal? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Do we need to check in on that? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was…

 

Angus Montgomery:

Do we need to check on the legality of that claim?

 

Laura Stevens:

You need to investigate some pub wherever she grew up.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was her family pub and she just served soft drinks.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Ok, so September. Plans for a new permanent secretary level Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) were announced at Sprint. Alison said that GCDIO was a bit of a mouthful, so what was the title shortened to? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

She calls them ‘The Big G’. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Adding that it incorporates a sense of scale and seniority for that particular post. 

 

Mark Hurrell, the former Head of Design for GOV.UK and the Head of Graphic Design at GDS wrote the most popular blog post in Design in Government blog history. What was it about? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

So I feel like I need to claw this back after Angus took my specialist subject earlier. Is it the post about the design principles posters?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Yes, well done.

 

Laura Stevens:

There was also a very nice… we can plug the Instagram here as well, because I believe Roger Valentine did a very nice animation about those posts as well.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Great. In October, 2 members of the Sustainability Network – Emily Labram and Will Pearson – estimated the maximum amount of CO2 that GDS produces. How many tonnes of CO2 did they estimate we produced? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it 4,000?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

Ah! That’s so much.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s a lot but it’s an important piece of work. It’s good to know exactly what your impact is.

 

Laura Stevens:

And is it on the blog post?

 

Sarah Stewart:

It is. All of the details are on the blog post and how they calculated it as well.

 

Angus Montgomery:

And where does that come from, the CO2?

 

Sarah Stewart:

It’s things like data centres that are consuming lots of energy. Like and whether that energy is, I mean the question is whether you can have renewable energy sources to keep things like data centres up and running and...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah and I think also, that blog post got a lot of comments, as well. So I think it’s something that other government departments or like arm’s length bodies, or whatever are looking into.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah cause you, yeah, I guess you think that the big culprits are fashion, oil and gas industries. Actually, everyone is sort of-

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, everyone is responsible. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes.

In October, GOV.UK turned 7. Tell me, what was notable about the desks that the team worked on when GOV.UK was launched? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this from an article you wrote? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Me? Or Secretary of State?

 

Laura Stevens:

Sorry, sorry, the ghostwriting that doesn’t exist.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it that they were cardboard boxes?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Thank you for reading that by the way.

 

I’m going to read a quote from a GDS figure. Please can you identify the speaker, their job title and tell me what they are talking about. The quote starts, “Unlike many publishers or commercial organisations, we’re not incentivised by statistics like page views or the number of visitors. Our interest is in making sure we are where the user is,” end quote. Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

That is Jen Allum, who is Head of GOV.UK, talking about, well I guess the sort of success metrics for GOV.UK. And it’s interesting what she’s saying about that, that obviously we’re not a commercial organisation, we’re an organisation that’s here to serve user needs. So the traditional kind of understanding of people, you know you want to increase the number of people coming to your site, like that’s not how we operate.

 

I mean it’s good to know those figures obviously. And it’s good to know who’s coming and what they are looking at and what’s getting a lot of traffic and stuff. But that’s not ultimately what motivates people and that’s not what motivates their future vision for GOV.UK, which is about serving users, helping them to do whatever it is that they need to do, regardless of whether that’s a simple thing or a complex life event.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Perfect answer. One point.

 

November saw the creation of another community at GDS. GDS has got so many lovely communities. What was that community? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it Muslims at GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct! Networks are a nice thing, aren’t they?

 

Laura Stevens:

They are.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What’s your favourite network? What networks are you part of?

 

Laura Stevens:

So at GDS I’m part of the Women’s Network. I’ve also recently joined the Mental Health Network because I interviewed Ben on the podcast, Ben Carpenter on the podcast last month. What about you Angus?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I’m not a member, although I probably ought to be. But I go to quite a lot of the Women’s Network events, which are really good. I think it’s great obviously not being a woman and being able to go to these things and being part of that community.

 

But no, I think the good thing about the networks is, even if you are not a member, they are really visible so I’ve been to quite a few events that the LGBT Network have done as well. I just think it’s really good that, yeah they’re so active and there is so much going on.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, I think that part about being open to all is really nice. Because often you can just join them by joining the Slack channel, and that’s very, you can just be there. So if you’re joining GDS as a person who’s not been in government before or anything, you can just be like, “here’s a few friendly faces” and you don’t have to...you can be kind of as active or as inactive as you want to be as part of the network. 

 

So what networks are you part of?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I dip my toes into a few pools. Does that work? I mean not physiologically. Metaphorically. I’m really interested in the work that the Women’s Group do, particularly around negotiating pay rises and public speaking. But also the Mental Health Network is really valuable because it’s such an everyday thing here. Well it’s becoming more of an everyday thing here to talk about how you are feeling. And I think that in other organisations, that’s not the case. I think there is a real push to normalise talking about it, which is ultimately very healthy.

 

Laura Stevens:

And it’s really nice that GDS can take like a leading role in that then, in setting a precedent on how that’s a good thing.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah. Okay, we’ve only got 2 questions left. We’re almost at the end. So can you tell me how many types of chocolate were tried by GDS Chocolate Club in 2019? And I should add that GDS Chocolate Club is funded by its members and is an out of hours club. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

6.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m going to go much higher. I’m going to go like 24. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well you’ve both fallen short. 65 chocolates were tasted in 2019.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Woah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this the final question?

 

Sarah Stewart:

This is the final question of the quiz. Name every person in the Creative Team who made the GDS Podcast series possible this year.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Sarah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

Producer Emily.

 

Angus Montgomery:

To give her her full title. Animator and photographer, Roger. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And we’ve got filmmaker Graham. Producer Megan Painter.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

Designer Charlotte.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Couldn’t possibly forget Alastair Mogford, who not only set up this podcast but documented how we do it and wrote down a very long description which we’ve all been using now because we all forget like what the set-up is and stuff. So thank you, Alastair.

 

Laura Stevens:

Shout out to Alastair. 

 

And also we’ve got to shoutout to our social media star, Lou Mullan. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

And thanks obviously to Chris Watson.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh wait. How do we attribute points to this? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Everyone gets points for that.

 

Laura Stevens:

Because it’s a team effort. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yes.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Aw that’s nice. That’s the spirit, isn’t it?

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, well done team though, because we’ve done 14 podcasts! 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah!

 

Laura Stevens:

Thanks to everyone there. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

And thank you so much to all of our listeners for your loyal support over the past year.

 

Ok so Emily, can you tell us, can you hand me the final scores. I’m going to announce who the winner is-

 

Angus Montgomery:

Ah!

 

Laura Stevens:

Drumroll.

 

Sarah Stewart:

After I announce who the runner-up is. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yay!

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well done. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well done Angus.

 

Sarah Stewart:

But today’s winner is Laura Stevens. So, your prize is 3 chocolate bars wrapped up inside a civil service lanyard. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh that’s very kind of you, thank you.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So claps for..

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww! Well, but there’s 3 so you know we can divide amongst…

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh, well how convenient. Apart from Producer Emily.

 

Laura Stevens:

I tried to do that really nicely.

 

Angus Montgomery:

There, there are actually 4 of us in the room. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I will share that out amongst all of us here.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s very magnanimous of you. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Aww, good winner. Ok so that brings us to the end of the last podcast of 2019. How did you think it went?

 

Angus Montgomery:

It was very challenging. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

It doesn’t sound...

 

Laura Stevens:

But I did come out as a winner, so I mean.. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

I feel like-

 

Angus Montgomery:

I mean obviously I came out as a runner up, so it was more challenging for me.

 

Sarah Stewart:

2019 has been quite a year, hasn’t it?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Uh huh.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What have your highlights been? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Well I moved team. So I’m now on the Strategy Team, which explains why I’m not as involved in the podcasts as I was before. So yeah, that’s a highlight. But obviously being on the Creative Team was also a highlight. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s sweet. Laura, what’s your highlight been? 

 

Laura Stevens:

I’ve really liked actually getting more involved in the podcasts, which is quite an appropriate thing to say in this podcast episode. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

On the podcast..

 

Laura Stevens:

But no I’ve spoken to really interesting people, like Kate Ivy-Williams and Sam Dub. Yeah, lots of other people as well, on the podcast. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Great. Okay. 

 

Laura Stevens:

But what about you? What was your highlights for the year? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well I helped Alison with the presentation that she delivered at the Women into Leadership Conference. And we made a spoof book about Alison. It’s called ‘Alison by Alison Pritchard’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Because we were talking about like stories from her life and someone thought it was real.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. I believe also, I’m quite surprised by this because you actually wrote in fake reviews, I believe. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, I did reviews from ‘People’s Friend’ and ‘Time Magazine’. That was really funny, and it was a really good event as well. 

So thank you to all of our listeners over 2019. It’s been quite the year in the world of the GDS Podcast, we’ve covered lots of topics. So thank you for your loyal support and lending us your ears.

 

Laura Stevens:

And please keep listening. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. You can read the transcripts on Podbean. Bye.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Bye.

 

Laura Stevens:

Bye 2019. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #13: Mental wellbeing at GDS

Government Digital Service Podcast #13: Mental wellbeing at GDS

November 27, 2019

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re speaking about mental wellbeing at GDS. We’ve chosen to highlight this now as November is Men’s Mental Health Month. But we will be talking about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace more generally today. 

And to tell me more is Ben Carpenter. So please can you introduce yourself and what you do here at GDS, and your role in supporting mental wellbeing here.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Hello. Yeah, I’m Ben Carpenter. I’m Inclusive Services Lead in the Service Design and Assurances Programme. And I co-lead the Wellbeing Working Group, and I was, before we kind of rebranded as the Wellbeing Working Group, I was lead of the Mental Health Network.

 

Laura Stevens:

So can you tell me a bit about the GDS Mental Health Network and where it fits into the Wellbeing Group here at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well the Mental Health Network used to be kind of everything in the mental wellbeing space. Now that we’re expanding things to try and incorporate all aspects of wellbeing, physical and mental, the Mental Health Network in that name, really comprises basically of a Slack channel and a newsletter and of the people within the Slack channel.

 

That’s not to trivialise it ‘cause those things are really important, and a lot of work goes into those things, so the Q&As etc. But whereas we used to refer to GDS’s mental, GDS’s Mental Health Network as being all things mental wellbeing, I’d now say that’s more falls under the whole wellbeing banner.

 

Laura Stevens:

So, these Q&As. These are regular anonymous peer-led mental wellbeing Q&As on Slack. And can you describe some of the topics that come up? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

We organise those around topics that staff nominate and then vote for their preference. And so the topics can just vary all the time, from Imposter Syndrome to general anxiety to dealing with heavy workloads to dealing with a lack of a heavy workload, having had you know changes in, fluctuations in workload, that’s what you say. Bereavement and loss, you know, just the full range of emotional challenges. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you found people have responded to the Network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So it’s not my day job at all. It’s like, it should be a fraction of my time and often it takes up a big fraction of my time. But it’s a funny area to work in and on, because it’s hard to get feedback on success. So the nature of the topic, the nature of the beast is, you might not hear from people even if something’s going really well.

 

A good example would be the Q&As that we hold on Slack each month. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you have an anonymous route through, in those Q&As, to ask questions or answer questions. And you never know how many people are watching and reading, you never know how many people read the transcripts for information afterwards. So it can be very, it can be a very kind of quiet space to work in. You can, I sometimes think ‘oh god, is this work, is it worth it?’.

 

But when you do get feedback, it’s very very positive and. But yeah, it’s often hard to put something more tangible on that, to sort of prove value. 

 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s just, yeah. It’s hard to know exactly what is most valuable to users but I think it’s really…by users, I always talk about us. I talk about the Network as, and the Wellbeing Group, as a service and we should think of staff here as our users. Because I firmly believe we should be a user-centred service so…

 

Laura Stevens:

Sort of like doing the GDS principles in all aspects.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Absolutely, yeah. I mean this more than anything right, is a, if you’re going to try and help people with their wellbeing, you should be doing it in a way that you believe to be organised around what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so yeah, a sort of more general question. Why, which might sound obvious but I think it’s good to ask it anyway, is why is it important to have a Mental Health Network and Wellbeing Group at all? What does it bring to the workplace?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m not sure. You tell me.

 

I mean so, that was a facetious question as in ‘you tell me’. Because I always think I want the GDS staff and colleagues to say why they appreciate the network’s efforts or presence.

 

But we know that people with healthy wellbeing are generally more productive in their work. So on a boring sort of corporate side, you know people work better. But we’re also a human-centred organisation, I think we are. I’m a human-centred person. So I take on this work because I care about people here. 

 

And so there’s no, to me there shouldn’t have to be any metric in terms of productivity or sort of value, ‘cause it’s just the right thing to do. I mean imagine, flip that round. Imagine a workplace where nobody thought, or took the time to organise around their staff’s wellbeing. 

 

Now that we’re doing this work and we have things like the ‘Time to Change’ pledges and commitments that we’ve made as an organisation, and we have a bunch of people in a working group saying, “hang on, lets try and provide things that the staff need to improve their wellbeing”, it seems perverse to everything, you wouldn’t do that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you talk a bit about the ‘Time to Change’ pledge that you’ve mentioned?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I can a little bit.

 

Laura Stevens:

Ok.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yep, so Alison, Director General, signed the pledge last month or the month before. So Time to Change is a charity and they help organisations like us, companies, organisations to make a stack of commitments. 

 

So we’ve got 7 commitments under the Time to Change pledge. It covers things like, encouraging staff to be able to be frank about their mental health, training line managers to have conversations with staff about mental wellbeing, and broader wellbeing. 

 

All Senior Civil Servants here are going to undergo, go through some training on wellbeing awareness and support. Commitments in there as well around mental health first aid.

 

Laura Stevens:

I mean I was really interested when I was researching this to hear about the mental health first aiders. And when did they get brought in at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well so they, they exist in...some people brought those skills with them to GDS. Some people were able to go on mental health first aid training courses while they were here.

 

But what we’re doing at the moment is trying to organise that group of people, because again they’re just volunteers. These are not paid, there’s not a paid role, these are people who are volunteering to be mental health first aiders for their colleagues.

 

So what we’re trying to do is move away perhaps from a sort of set-up that we might have had before. It was like ‘oh, you know, that bloke over there happens to have been trained as a first aider, everyone go talk to him if they’re miserable’. And instead we’re trying to say ‘hang on, there are 800 staff here. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter: 

Right, how many mental health first aiders do we need to be able to look after, or provide that kind of support, to that number of staff?’. And what we’re aiming for is 1 in 50. So for every 50 members of staff, there’s a mental health first aider. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What are they qualified to do, what are they not qualified to do and why would you go to them?

 

Ben Carpenter:

They’re not practitioners. They are listeners, they’re confidential listeners and signposters. And as simple as that sounds, to do that in a robust and reliable way without yourself struggling too much perhaps with what you might be talking to people about, takes a couple of days training.

 

But yes, I think it’s really important to run that as a service, not as a thing that just happens. By which I mean, base it on what we believe that users need. Make sure it’s run in a sustainable way, you wouldn’t want to have 15 first aiders now and then you talk to me in a year, and we’ve suddenly only got 3. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you’ve got to know how many we need, we’ve got to have funding for that, we’ve got to be constantly making sure that we’ve got volunteers to take on those roles if needed and so on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you think, how long have you been at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

2013...six years. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you seen support for mental health change since 2013?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well...do you know when I was first here I probably wasn’t thinking about it very much. It was much more a sort of start-up feel, very whirlwind.

 

I’ve been more and more open about my own mental health as well in recent years. I mean I’ve always been pretty open about it, ‘cause I’ll talk to anyone about anything. But..

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s how you’re on this podcast.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, right. But I think I’ve also more, proudly is the wrong word, less self-consciously happy to be known for having some mental health challenges while in the workplace with my colleagues. That was probably something I would have felt less comfortable doing even in the early days at GDS. And definitely at previous organisations that I’ve worked for. 

 

I would always have shared that sort of thing with line management or friends, but I don’t think I would have sat on a podcast saying, ‘I lead this network as best I can and I also have mental health challenges and occasionally, I’ll write about that on Slack or a blog post or something’. 

 

So that’s something that has changed for me but I wouldn’t...I think the signing of the ‘Time to Change’ pledge is a big deal for GDS. It’s a public statement under those 7 areas. And so in terms of policy, you know the mental health first aid commitments within that are, they’re really good and they’re really big.

 

So it’s up to us all to actually make sure they happen.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would there be any other things you’d like to see change here at GDS, oh, and good practices, or that you’ve seen elsewhere that you might want to bring in here?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m really pleased with the direction things are going. It would, it really does just come down to people and time.

 

I’d say that fully user-centred approach to what we provide is something that I would like to see really properly embedded across all of our wellbeing mental health work.

 

And personally, I’m much less interested on working on something that I don’t know, or have good confidence, to be useful for people, my colleagues that I work with in terms of their mental health. 

 

So I don’t want to just tick any boxes. And I don’t want to make us look nice within the Civil Service. I don’t, I’m not interested in any of that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

You don’t want to pay lip service to something.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right. It can sound repetitive but I think it’s really the thing that matters. So for me with wellbeing, it might be that the very best thing this organisation can do for its staff is to continue to provide places for them to talk, continue to train line managers, continue to train mental health first aiders, continue to run things like the Q&As and speaking events and make people feel, even if they never speak up and say ‘oh that was brilliant, I loved that talk’, you know, even if they’re very quiet about it or silent about it, we know that it’s valuable to staff for these things to take place. 

 

So we don’t have to be coming up with new things.

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Might just keep doing simple, quiet, useful things. Which isn’t always cool and isn’t always popular. But that’s what I like.

 

Laura Stevens:

How would you say the mental health sort of practices here, employee wellbeing, compares to other workplaces? Or have you’ve spoken, in your work with this network, have you spoken to the other people from other workplaces and have they brought in ideas or you’ve shared ideas there?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Lots of people are really impressed and pleased to see what GDS has set up by the way of this open spaces to be able to talk about this. And the network and the community around to support people. But the most, lots of people who come into GDS say, ‘gosh this is, this is new to me’

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

‘This is remarkable in that, just that it exists’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think if there’s, if people are finding best practice here at GDS, is there potential for it to be shared across other government departments? Obviously if you’re involved and you go elsewhere, you can take that...

 

Ben Carpenter:

There is a cross-government network. People do try and share ideas and approaches. We did try and pool approaches to mental health first aid provision and training and business cases to support the recruitment of people to do that, for example.

 

Laura Stevens:

So there’s that opportunity for if stuff has been learnt here and tried and it’s found to work.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. We need to get better at blogging about what we do and what works. You know we’ve done a couple of blog posts but not enough really. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, I saw your Slack Q&A one and...

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, wrote up that. And that was good. So I did a blog post about the Q&As that I’ve been talking about. And I’ve had 3 or 4 organisations, I’ve had meetings with since then to show them how we do, and they’ve gone off and run their own.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that make you feel? Like sort of, it’s sort of out in the open now, it’s sort of being spread.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. Yeah it’s good. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. It seems such a simple idea but it’s, behind the scenes it’s surprisingly sort of complicated to make sure you’re trying to ask, field questions in a sensitive way really keep on top of them. The last thing you would want would be to miss, miss questions coming in or feel like peo-- I wouldn’t want staff here to thi--, I’d be mortified if I thought staff felt it was sort of poorly curated or was not sensitive to their needs or feelings. So.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think things like the Network, the Wellbeing Group, are sort of helping encouraging people at GDS to say that’s ok to say that I have mental health, have you seen that as a response in your, anecdotally or? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Anecdotally, yeah. Definitely anecdotally. I know that many of the comments that we see on the Slack channel, either through the Q&A sessions or just spontaneously, are people saying you know, ‘I feel so glad this network exists, I feel so glad this is something that people talk about here, I feel supported by the existence of this channel and that you guys are here piping up with this stuff and it’s not taboo, or it’s not taboo here.

 

Our Slack channel, I know it’s Slack it’s just Slack, but it’s the second most, it’s got the second most number of people in it of all the channels on GDS’s Slack after the community. So you know, and that’s nobody’s been forced onto there so people come in to read and listen.

 

Yeah, so we get...it’s another very hard thing to measure.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can anyone on that Slack channel, if you’re part of the Slack channel, can anybody respond to anybody else or is it just if you’re part, if you’re a mental health first aider or is it just open to all?

 

Ben Carpenter:

No, no. It’s just an open forum. So that’s why I think the anonymity of the Q&As is so valuable. So what we do with the Q&As is a 2 hour session every month. And you can post questions through an anonymous Google form in advance which I, or whoever is coordinating the session that month, would get and copy and paste them in Slack basically. Just say here’s a question and then people reply as a thread within Slack. And if they don’t want to answer the question publically either. 

 

So we get, last time out I think there were a dozen questions, none of them posted live. So nobody wanted to ask what they wanted to ask straight into Slack with their name next to it. Maybe some of them would have if there hadn’t been an anonymous route. But if it didn’t matter, they would have done it. What’s the opposite of anonymous? Nonymous? Nonymous? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Identifiable? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, right. They would have identified, they would be happy to be identified so. So if 12 people ask 12 questions anonymously, to me that’s a massive indicator in itself, that out of an organisation of 800 of a Slack channel of three or four hundred people, you get a dozen you know…I don’t know what, you imagine there are a dozen who do dare to ask an anonymous question.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course, yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

There must be a whole stack more who are finding it hard.

 

Laura Stevens:

A tip of the iceberg.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, yeah. It might not be a massive iceberg but it’s still an indicator. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do people, how do people respond like do you have to monitor the responses or do you just let people respond how they would like?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I keep an eye on them for worrying signs, but nothing else. We never claim for it to be something of experts, it’s a peer-to-peer support thing.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

It was only, actually a couple of months ago, as a confession, running the Q&As and I thought it’s always been in the back of my mind, worrying that I would get a really scary message anonymously.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And you think, ‘oh my god, there’s somebody here who’s gonna hurt themselves or hurt someone else, or sounds really on the brink’. I’d always thought that felt like a risk of doing the Q&As. But to be honest, actually it’s only a risk of hearing about those thoughts, not a risk of creating those thoughts necessarily.

 

So it was only then that we suddenly jumped up and said we need to have a statement ready. So I do have, while I’m running the Q&As I’m ready with a document if I get something like that. I would copy and paste my message, this agreed comms message that we’ve agreed with comms and senior management, across all staff as an email and across all the Slack channels as a message, not just the Q&A, to say ‘if you sent this message containing this word’, so we wouldn’t share all of it just to make sure they knew we were talking to them, ‘then please contact one’, and we’d lead with 999.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Or talk to a first aider. You know we’d give them contact options.

 

I mean it’s an odd, yeah it’s an odd leading a network like this and getting involved in this kind of work, I do feel a massive sense of responsibility.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And in a way that’s one of the things that makes me want us to do less, really well rather than take on too much. So sometimes in the network, it can be hard in the working group for all of us to find the time just to meet and just organise ourselves just to provide a few events and speakers, and get posters and you know, sell some pin badges and coffee mornings. That can be hard just...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Even to get to that level. So I feel like whatever we do, I want us to do it well rather than lots of things averagely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how are you, you said about feeling this responsibility particularly for a network that deals with things like this, how are you supported in running this?

 

Ben Carpenter:

David Dilley is our mental health champion at GDS, a Senior Civil Service, Senior Civil Servant. Fiona James is the wellbeing champion. So I can talk to either of them whenever I like. Abby Peel co-leads the Wellbeing Working Group with me. So we work really nicely together, Abby’s brilliant. And there’s actually much more of like tour de force behind the stuff that does get done in the working group.

 

So I mean I’ve got my line manager, and I’ve got the first aiders and I’ve got the Q&As. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So...

 

Ben Carpenter:

This whole thing is just therapeutic for me right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

That’s why I’m doing this ‘cause it gives me, it’s my own private brilliant therapy network.

 

All the anonymous questions on the Q&As I just, are mine for example. I make them all up myself.

 

That’s not true, that’s not true.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you are supported and?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, of course, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you, you were saying, so mental health is part of the wellbeing group, can you talk a bit more about the wellbeing group, and the wellbeing, and its aims?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So yeah, so we had the Mental Health Network which was, as the title suggests quite focused just on mental health. And I think quite rightly, particularly when Fiona joined GDS and is the senior wellbeing champion for GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this Fiona James? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Sorry, yes. You know, it’s correct I think to pull everything together in terms of wellbeing and say, because we know there’s such strong links between physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing for starters. And if we’re trying to say you know, a bit of a common tropey type phrase about mental health is, ‘well if you broke your arm you go and see the doctor, so when you’re feeling down why don’t you go…’.

 

You know which is a bit of an ugly comparison made in those, because they’re not comparable really but, we should be trying to bring them together so to totally normalise mental health. We’re not, nobody’s got any qualms about physical health or moaning about physical health, so lets moan about our mental health. Let's be honest about it. Let’s ask for help.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So that’s the evolution of that, and I really welcome it. In many ways the discrepancy, bothering to split these things up is really just a semantic exercise a lot of the time. Ditto for, so there’s a daily meditation session, 10 minute session, happens every day anyone can go 10 minutes of peaceful reflection. That’s meditation, it’s not, it doesn’t happen on my watch right, we don’t talk about it in the Wellbeing Peer Group. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

But it’s everything to do, there’s a running club that takes place every, every well at least every week. I’m not sure how often they run.

 

Laura Stevens:

No, I can’t say that I’m part of that so I don’t know.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Mental health doesn’t all have to be about crisis. It’s just about ongoing care. Yeah, looking after yourself. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Are there any sort of tips you can give me to create a better workplace for mental health, for employee wellbeing?

 

Ben Carpenter:

If you’re looking to provide this for staff rather than you’re somebody yourself who has mental health challenges and you’re thinking, ‘what can I do, I’m at work what can I do?’. I think it’s the openness of the topic is primary. So be bold and be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘here’s what I struggle with’. And you know talk to people, give that message out loud, ask people to reflect back to you how they feel, does it ring any bells with them.

 

So I think there’s been, so Helen Nickols, who ran the Mental Health Network before I joined it as well, I feel like she really led by example you know. She wasn’t afraid, still isn't afraid to stand up and say ‘this is what I struggle with, this is how I deal with it’, you know. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And I think if you can’t do that then it’s gonna be hard to expect other people to sort of come out of their shells and start to talk about things that might help them, in a way that might help them, sorry.

 

So, yeah, it really helps to have champions, people who will treat this seriously and not as a taboo. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So be open, be bold, be honest, and have champions.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes, keep talking.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would be your sort of, yeah. And…

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And make sure that you, there’s a space as well I guess for people to be able to have these open conversations. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

I think we have to be really aware in organisations that it’s a massive luxury and privilege to be able to be frank about your mental health. It can take a massive amount of privilege. So I’m a white middle aged man with every privilege really. So, and career wise, I’m probably pretty robust. I don’t mean in GDS, ‘cause they could sack me tomorrow, but I just mean I have the luxury of being able to stand up and say you know, the reason I couldn’t come to work last week for a couple of days, was you know, mental health.

 

To expect that of everybody is not fair. So I think it falls upon people who do have those privileges just to use that capital a bit and try and break those taboos, ‘cause it’s massively biased towards people like me.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you get in touch with the mental, how do I join the wellbeing group?

 

Ben Carpenter:

You go on the Slack channel, you listen, you ask questions. It’s not something you can join, it’s just there for you. It’s not a club. The only aspect of it which is a club is that you need to join the Slack channel if you want to read what people are asking or saying, but even within there for a few days at a time, it may only be little nice bits of chat and people asking questions or sharing things they’ve read. So it’s not intense. 

 

If you want to get involved, if you want to give help you might want to train to be a first aider. If you want to give help you might want to put the Q&As in your diary, last Friday of every month 10 to 12 in the morning. And listen to people and offer them your support, if not expertise.

 

Sometimes people just want to be heard. Now certainly the Q&A, some of the feedback I’ve had is, ‘it’s so good just to be able to write this down and be heard, even if people didn’t know it was me who said it’. And people just say, ‘I hear you, it’s valid, you’re fine, it’s ok to think that and feel that’. So you don’t have to be like I say you know a therapist going on there with amazing clinical advice. So if you want to give help those are good ways to do that. Or you could offer to, you could think about what you could talk about if you’ve had challenges of your own, anything.

 

If you want to receive help, so if you need help, then there’s a mental health first aiders. Look on the wiki, search for mental health support, look at all, look at the wellbeing pages on there, see what activities and timetables there are for you to get involved with.

 

Go to the yoga sessions, go on the lunchtime walks, go to Abby’s crafting sessions, dial in to the Q&As, call the Cabinet Office listening service, call, go and see your GP. You know whatever you think works for you. The most important thing is to do something, it can be anything. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So if I’m listening and I’m not at GDS so I can’t join the Slack, how would be a good way to get in touch with you if I want to find out more about setting up a Slack channel at my own organisation or running this sort of network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Totally happy to be emailed, Ben.Carpenter@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk. That sounds right, is that right?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, that’s right.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah. I can’t give mental health advice but I will talk to you about what we do as per this podcast. 

 

And so I often talk about leaning forward, and I think this was actually the name of the Facebook CEO’s book wasn’t it recently? And I think she stole it from me.

 

The analogy being if you want to jump off a really high diving board and you’re terrified of it, don’t go up to the top of the diving board and think ‘now I’m going to jump 200 feet into this cold water’. Just go to the top of the diving board and lean forward a little bit and think, ‘I know what I’m going to do, I’m just going to lean forward’. And before you know it you’ll be in the water swimming around. Right? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

So I think, as with any life's big challenges, take the first step and then just try and let the other steps follow. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to Ben to talking to us today about mental health and employee wellbeing. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on PodBean. 

 

Again, thank you very much to Ben for joining.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

September 30, 2019

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the work of the International Design in Government community. This community has grown rapidly since its inception 2 years ago, and now has 1,500 members from 66 countries and 6 continents.

 

The group brings together designers and design minded people working anywhere in the world to share best practice, host events and tackle common obstacles. And this summer, they held their first international event in the USA and Scotland.

 

So let's hear from 2 people directly involved in the community, Kara Kane and Martin Jordan. So please can you introduce yourself and tell me about your role here at GDS.

 

Kara Kane:

Hi, I’m Kara Kane. I’m the Community Lead for User-Centred Design at GDS. So I work on growing user-centered design capability and as well, understanding and awareness of user-centered design across UK government. And I also manage the International Design in Government community.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re quite busy.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens

And Martin?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I’m Martin Jordan, Head of Service Design here at GDS. And this means shaping what good service design looks like across government. It means helping government increase its service design capability through recruiting, training and as well, mentoring. And then yeah, building a strong service design community across government and well now as well, internationally. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And could you describe the community to me for somebody who has never heard about it before?

 

Kara Kane:

So the community is just a group of people that are all working on similar things in government. So we have a shared purpose around making better government services. And it’s just, as you said in the intro, it’s extremely diverse and extremely international so it’s grown really quickly and as we’ve started kind of running the community in different ways, so we have online channels, we do monthly calls, we’ve now started doing events. So doing, through doing these different formats, we’ve been able to help people meet each other and helping people meet each other face-to-face.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Which then helps the online stuff and helps that make it easier because people are more willing to reach out to someone if they’ve met them in person. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mention you’ve got countries from all the continents apart from Antartica. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I think there are no designers there.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. 

Ok so, I thought to show how diverse the community is as we mentioned earlier, I’d ask you a few questions about some of the different 66 countries you’ve got involved.

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh gosh.

 

Laura Stevens:

So do you know who your most northerly member is?

 

Kara Kane:

Think it might be Iceland…?

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh yeah, probably.

 

Kara Kane:

We might have people in Reykjavik…?

 

Laura Stevens:

Kara, you are correct.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes!

 

Martin Jordan:

I thought of Helsinki but yes, yeah, that makes more sense, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And then we, who is your most southerly member?

 

Martin Jordan:

So it’s, it’s probably New Zealand. Because there are people, there are people in Wellington.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Martin, you got that right. 

 

Don’t doubt your guess.

 

And then you have, out of the members, you have both the largest country in the world by area and the second smallest, do you know what those 2 countries are?

 

Martin Jordan:

So one might be Russia. And the second one, I have no idea.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, you got Russia, so Kara, can you do the second, the second smallest country in the world by area?

 

Kara Kane:

It might be Monaco..?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Well done.

 

So, and then the final one, just to showcase this diverse group, you have a country that’s a member, that is made up of more than 200 islands.

 

Kara Kane:

I was ready for this one. I did some pre-work. So I know that this is Palau. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well done! So this shows how, even amongst these diverse groups, there’s lots of shared traits with design in government. 

 

Was there a particular catalyst for this International Design in Government group? How did it start?

 

Martin Jordan:

So our former boss Lou Downe, at that time Director for Design, and the UK government, they like to blog. And they wrote a blog post I think in February 2017. And they referenced the D-5 countries.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could you explain the D-5?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So the D-5 countries were kind of like very digital countries that came together I think around 2011 or so. That included the UK, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand and South Korea. And there’s an ongoing conversation and a regular monthly call around design around government. And there was a special edition on design.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

That we did do in early 2017. And Lou basically wrote a blog post and said like, well we’re having this great community of designers in the UK government, but there’s probably like more stuff to do as well on a global scale, because we very likely have common issues. 

 

We all kind of like, design services that are somewhat similar. Policies might be different, laws might be different but overall, there are a lot of like, similarities. So we might be able to like, scale co-authored patterns, we might be looking at like, how to embed user-centred culture in government.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Martin Jordan:

All of those things. So they wrote a blog post and then we were like, ‘ok, what does it actually mean?’.

 

Kara Kane:

We had a form at the end of the blog post for people to let us know if they were interested in joining whatever this thing would be. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So I went away and took that list of people, and kind of started developing the community. So we just invited all of those people to a Google group and then went from there.

 

Laura Stevens:

And it grew really rapidly. Like I’ve got here in the first 10 months, it grew to 250 people from 37 countries. What sort of like challenges did you face when you were growing it at that sort of scale quickly?

 

Kara Kane:

I think with any community, starting it is, is just difficult to start kind of forming relationships and to start getting the conversation going. So as a Community Manager, it was really about trying to get to know people in the community, trying to start introducing people, trying to just, like I would just have calls with people to find out what they’re working on to get to know them a little bit. 

 

And then we started running these monthly calls, which were a way to, to kind of start sharing work in a different way. But again that took a while for the focus to turn away from GDS in to, to be a focus on sharing internationally. So not just us kind of telling, but us learning as well from, from other people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you find there are a lot of shared things? ‘Cause obvio--, the countries we mentioned earlier, they’ve got hugely different geographies, populations, all different. But are you finding there’s, they are these shared obstacles that designers face in government and what, what would some of them be?

 

Martin Jordan:

So in some places, there might not be a designer there at all but like a design minded person who’s doing it in some way.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

So they ask like, how do you, how do you make the first business case for the first designer, and then we might be able to like, share like some of, some of the arguments and also there are a lot of, a lot of good stories out there so we try to like, give them good examples that they can kind of like, go to their, their seniors and like, advocate with these stories.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Martin Jordan:

That is quite, quite, quite, quite powerful.

 

Kara Kane:

Then following on from that, if you think about things like immigration, like that runs across…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...every, everywhere. So there’s a lot that we can, can learn from the similarities and differences of how, of how we run services related to immigration or employment or benefits. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is it quite a lot of physical meetups or is it more sort of interaction online? You mentioned earlier there’s Google groups, Slack. So how does that, how do you all communicate with each other in the community?

 

Kara Kane:

When it first started it was all online. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Kara Kane:

And because it’s an international community and, from the beginning it was really widespread in terms of representation geographically, it was hard to kind of think about you know what’s, what’s something we could do to get people to meet face to face. And I think the monthly calls were a way to do that. Because we were using Zoom, so it was the first way to like, show my face…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

...to the community. And to, for Martin and Lou, when we were all on these calls, and meeting people. But then from there, I think, when I first joined GDS, Martin always wanted to do a conference.

 

So we were always looking for a reason to run a conference. And then the international community seemed like that was the next natural step, was to get people together face to face.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yeah. You had your first official conference in London, 2018. Can you talk a bit about that and how you went about getting everybody here from all these different countries, who was able to attend with that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So we had a tiny budget to actually make this happen. We didn’t spend much, much money on that. And we kind of relied on kind of, everyone paying for their own flight tickets…

 

Kara Kane:

So when we, when we decided to run an international conference, we really wanted to involve the community in what it would look like. So we started sending surveys and emails out to the community to say, ‘what do you want this to be? Do you want to even come? What kind of format do you want it to be? Where should it be? What time of the year?’ So we kind of used the community to figure out what it should look like.

 

And then from there, started to shape the agenda. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What was the atmosphere like on the day?

 

Kara Kane:

It was exciting.

 

Martin Jordan:

I think people were like, super excited to see each other. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah,

 

Martin Jordan:

Because apart from like, interacting via Slack and as well as seeing each other in the monthly calls, people started following each other on Twitter, and there was quite an exchange there. 

 

As well, some people met at other international conferences. So whenever there was kind of a design or service design conference, they were like, like almost like, you how they were like literally like asking like, ‘who else is there?’ I was in Helsinki at some point in winter when it was freezing and I was like, ‘Hey, Finnish government folks, shall we meet for tea?’ and they were like, ‘yeah!’.

 

So like, you were, yeah. I think it was a really really great atmosphere and for, for the conference, for the 2 days, we tried to have representatives from all continents. 

 

So we tried to like, yeah, have a, have a good representation of of of regions. And then we had workshops on the second day. And for those workshops we really basically asked everyone in the UK government who can kind of like, host a workshop, run a workshop. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What came out of that in terms of saying that people were more connected and did any like working groups come out of it? 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the Finns, the folks in (the) Finnish government, started kind of like, a local community that gets together every, every month. And literally today, the Finns, as well the Estonians, run a joint workshop meetup together. So we actually started to, regionally we started connecting, connecting people with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

They’re now doing things, which is amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

I think another thing that came out of it is, so at the very end of the conference, we kind of asked people ‘do you want this to happen again?’, ‘do you want there to be another conference?’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

And people were like, ‘yeah!’. And there’s people, in the community, who are willing to kind of, take on the responsibility to do something. So that was really, really exciting. 

 

But I think, yeah the other thing was just, we’ve had people tell us that they know feel more confident to reach out to people. Like they’ve met people face to face, or at least they saw them at the conference, so now they feel like they can reach out to them. 

 

People are using tools and methods that they learned in some of the workshops. They’re continuing to, to work on the things, if they, if they presented at the, at the  conference, they’re continuing to work on those, on those things that they were presenting about. Whether it was a workshop format or a kind of, yeah, a different way of thinking. So that’s really exciting. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Some countries even like, started translating some of the tools they’re using into English to make it more accessible for other community members, which is amazing to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

What, I was also going to ask about that. Because obviously running an international community, you have the time zones and the language, do you, how do you get round those things?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Time zones are really difficult for the monthly calls. In the very beginning, we tried to run, I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea but I was like, we’ll just do the call twice and obviously that did not work. And obviously that’s a ton of work. 

 

So what we started was just to, just to move the times around. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s not like always run a call at the same time. We’re always trying to, to kind of, engage with different people. So we’ll run calls after work, later in the evening so that the Australians and the Kiwis can join. 

 

Martin Jordan:

But not too early in the morning.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, not too early in the morning. Happy to, happy to do things after work but not before (laughter from everyone).

 

Laura Stevens:

And the languages, are all the calls run in English?

 

Kara Kane and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

We haven’t, we haven’t encountered any issues with, with language. But I think you know, going forward we’re trying to be as, as inclusive as we can. We’re trying to reach as many kind of countries working in this space as we can. So that might be something that we have to think about in the future. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah we were really impressed to hear recently that at a conference in Taiwan, a government conference, they had subtitles in 12 different languages to reflect like, all the people attending. And we still have no idea how, how to make that work but this kind of like, the level of ambition. 

 

So at the most recent conference in Edinburgh, there was live subtitling in English and we’re looking into like, technologies to make it as inclusive as possible.

 

Laura Stevens:

And that leads me nicely on. Because you mentioned earlier that this, the last event in 2018, led directly to the 2019 events. And this is the first time that the events have gone global. So could you talk through those, what’s happened so far this year?

 

Kara Kane:

The first thing that we did this year was collaborate with Code for America. Code for America is a non-profit in the United States and they work on reforming government nationally. So they work really closely with state and local level government. They do really amazing work, and they run a summit, they run a yearly summit called ‘Code for America Summit’. And our idea was to bring the international community to the summit. So what we did was run a one-day international design in government day…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...before the Code for America Summit. So that was in Oakland in May of this year. And yeah, it was a real collaboration between between our 2 organisations. And to really bring the community to the US and reach people there that we’re not reaching, you’d think that the US would have a really strong design in government community, but they don’t yet. It’s still kind of nascent and forming. So it was really exciting to kind of, try and get all of those people in the room. Which they found really really valuable just to meet people like them, working on the same types of problems and challenges.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that because of like, the vast geography of America or is, and the federal...or is that?

 

Martin Jordan:

The latter as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, totally. Totally.

 

And of course again like, there’s a lot of stuff that they can share. And then they can share kind of like, their recipes to how to solve a certain thing with other people.

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, and that sharing tool--like I noticed New Zealand picked up the GOV.UK Design System and...

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes.

 

This was amazing to see. Yeah, they kind of like took that and kind of made it theirs. Like restyling it, taking a few things in and out.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was that facilitated by the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Well to some degree. So we have those monthly calls with themes, and the most popular ones were around design systems. So we actually had to, to repeat this theme so we had it in 2018 and did it in 2019 again because there’s so much interest.

 

And I think this was by far the most popular call we had, with more than 100 people joining.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh wow. Ok so...

 

Martin Jordan:

And partially it was like a group of people in one room like, counting as 1 right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh ok. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. It was our biggest call ever. I was just completely shocked to see over a 100 people online joining us on Zoom.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it quite tricky to manage that as sort of, or does, is everyone quite respectful when somebody’s talking, everyone else will be muted. Is that, how is that to manage?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. We have to set some, some ground, ground rules at the beginning to say, ‘everyone please go on mute’. And like yeah, there’s kind of there’s rules around, around how to ask questions. So there’s a chat function which is really easy to use, so you can write your question in the chat.

 

And then if you feel comfortable enough to go off mute and ask your question during the time for questions, then you can do that. Or I just read through the questions and try and help facilitate, facilitate that. 

 

Martin Jordan:

And there’s always recordings as well. So people can go back. So when they join the community later, they’re able to like, watch these previous calls or recordings of those, and once in a while, when people like, raise a question on Slack or on the mailing list, we’re like look, this was already covered, like have a look and they’re so thankful to like, find these resources.

 

Laura Stevens:

And if we can go back to the America, the conference in America. Was the community involved with organising that like it was with the one in London, or was that is that a slightly different way it was organised?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

We reached out to some of the North American community members.

 

Laura Stevens:

And who would they be?

 

Kara Kane:

So we had people at Nava [Nava Public Benefit Corporation] in the United States, we had people at the Canadian Digital Service, people at the United States Digital Service, the USDS.

 

Martin Jordan:

Veteran Services.

 

Kara Kane:

So we kind of came up with 3 different kind of themes, which were around getting leadership buy-in for user-centered design, designing services for and with everyone and building design capacity and capability.

 

Martin Jordan:

This was kind of like, although it was called International Design in government day, it was more kind of like, North American design in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. With that regionalised context?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how did it feel on the day? Did it feel similar to the one you felt, you did in London, or was it different?

 

Martin Jordan:

I mean I was so impressed.

 

Kara Kane:

It was a lot of people that we hadn’t met before from the community, or people that were new to the community. It was people that maybe hadn’t all been in the same room before.

 

Laura Stevens and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

As in designers working in government kind of talking about things and realising, ‘oh my gosh, I’m not the only person...’ 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...that has these really frustrating things’. Or that has you know, learning about a success of someone like you just feel, you could feel how proud people were. And that was amazing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you think that sort of, like talking, you were talking there about that sort of emotional support that the community provides, and that sense of ‘oh no, you’re not alone’. And obviously there’s very practical outcomes like you can use the same user research or you can use parts of the design system, but do you think that emotional support is quite a big part of why people get involved in the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Absolutely. This is..

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Martin Jordan:

This is, such a, such a strong, strong point. And yeah, I think, I think we see this as well in the Slack conversations. Like people asking questions and getting then a response from from somewhere, from another part of the world, is, is really reassuring. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And we should talk about your second conference as well in Scotland this year. So what happened there?

 

Kara Kane:

So when I mentioned at the conference in London, when we had the hands up, well one of the hands was Anna Henderson, who is a Service Designer in Scottish government, in the Office of the Chief Designer. So Anna and her team got in touch with us and said, ‘hey, like we’re really serious, like we really want to do this, like we’re going to get budget, like everyone is, everyone is excited’. They had you know, from their team level up to their minister, ministerial level, was really excited about running an international conference.

 

So Martin and I were like, amazing, let’s do this! 

 

Laura Stevens:

Great!

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Why wouldn’t we do this? 

 

So this was the first time that we were kind of running an event, or this is the first time that we were kind of handing over the responsibility of running a conference to someone else.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you didn’t do the agenda or…?

 

Kara Kane:

So we really kind of stepped back. And our role was to kind of, advise and share what we had learned from running the conference in London.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. So it was really shaped around the values of Scottish government, which is a lot about inclusion and participation. So the theme of the conference was participation involving citizens in the design of government and public services. And they had really amazing talks from the community, they had things on inclusive recruitment, they had things on doing international research, they had things on working with policy colleagues, and there was a fantastic keynote by Dr. Sally Witcher, who’s the Chief Executive of Inclusion Scotland. 

 

And I think the whole atmosphere of the conference as well was really also encompassing their values. So as Martin said, they had captioning for all of the keynotes and all of the breakouts. So every single room that you went into, there was live captioning available to you. And for all of the keynotes on the main stage, we also had British Sign Language interpreters.

 

Laura Stevens:

And is this something you’d want to carry forward now having seen it done in action?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, I think as Martin said, with trying to figure out like, how can we use technology, and these kind of new technologies that are available, around live transcription and live translation. Like how can we use those better because that’s just, that would be just so amazing to be able to help people feel more involved if they can understand the content better.

 

Laura Stevens:

And we can also look forward as well to the, your final is, your final international event of the year. 

 

Kara Kane:

And biggest. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And biggest in Rotterdam. And so yeah, can, Martin, can you tell me a bit about that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah. So yeah, as I said it will be the biggest conference we’ve had so far. So the Dutch government is leading on that. So the, my Dutch is really bad but the Gebruiker Centraal community, so which means like users first. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Which is a community in the Dutch government that is around I think, for a few years now. So they had local events and as well conferences there for a while. And now they’re kind of like, opening up and embracing and welcoming all the international visitors. So they’re aiming although, we’re aiming for like 800 people...

 

Laura Stevens:

Wow.

 

Martin Jordan:

...that will come together for like a full three days in Rotterdam in like mid-November this year, so 18th until 20th. And there will be workshops again, because we try to like not only in all of the conferences, not only have people talking at you, but you can actually participate and interact with people. So there’s always a lot of time for like, networking and workshopping things.

 

At the same time as well, kind of like open, other open formats, panel discussions. So all of that is going to happen. And again, there’s been like call for participations, we have been creating a kind of like, advisory board, again an international advisory board. Where people from different continents kind of like help shape as well, the content. 

 

We’re still on an ongoing basis like asking for more content, because there will be so many people so we need a lot of content as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re doing a call out now live to…

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes! 

 

Laura Stevens:

So how if you, how do you put something forward, how do I go to this conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you can go to ‘international.gov-design.com’. There you find all of the events that have happened already, and the one that’s happening next. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And are you hoping this will, you mentioned for like the American one was a bit more localised to North America. Are you hoping this will have a more global outlook because it’s just a bigger conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

The other day, I was listening to a talk from the Italians and I feel like everybody is kind of innovating in another pocket. So at the beginning some people were like, ‘oh GDS is so far ahead’, but like, we are ahead in some regards. In other regards like, other governments are totally leading. So there’s a lot of stuff we can learn from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there an example you can think of, maybe from that conference that you were like, ‘oh, they’re doing so much better, we can learn from them’. 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the design system that was created by the US folks and as well the design system created by, by the Australians, contains like various components that we might not have had.

 

So there has been, after one of the calls, like kind of like, an immediate exchange of code...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...which was like, wow. We were like, ‘oh this is a component we do not have here’. So that people…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...just share code literally, just…

 

Laura Stevens:

Straight away.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Which is quite amazing, amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in terms of obviously, you’ve had a really significant growth over these past few years, in terms of where you want to the community to go, is there any plans you’ve got for 2020, in terms of maybe, targeting different countries or growing it further or in a different direction. What would be your take on that?

 

Kara Kane:

In terms of the events, we’re intrigued to see how we can continue running those, and how we can continue having the community take ownership of those events. So we have been in, we’ve had people contact us from 3 different countries saying that they’re interested in running a conference. So we are in talks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Watch this space. 

 

Kara Kane:

Watch this space.

 

So we’re trying to think about you know, how many events should we do a year, and what should those events look like, and how big should they be. So we’re working on a bit of a conference playbook…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...at the moment, that we can share with people who want to run a conference, to really help them be able to do it. 

 

So in general for the community, going forward, we want it be, we want it to continue to be a place that is supportive for people working in this environment and in this space. We want to continue bringing people together, we want to continue seeing things like the Finns and the Estonians kind of working together and running events together. 

 

And you know, people working on similar service areas coming together to share and learn from each other. But we really you know, in the future, want to get to a point where we’re, as Martin said around the design system example, like how can we share interaction and service design patterns.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

There’s so much kind of possibility for that. So how can the community facilitate that and what does that look like and is it possible, and at what level can we get to, and how can we keep you know, stealing from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Stealing code, stealing ideas and just you know, really learning from what everyone else is doing. So it’s really about kind of, maximising share and re-use, which is the theme of the November conference.

 

Martin Jordan:

Exactly, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so if, how would I join this community if I’ve been listening to this, wherever I am in the world, how would I join?

 

Martin Jordan:

So we have quite a few blog posts on the design in government blog, that is one of the GDS blogs. 

 

There you have a dedicated international category, and whatever international blog post you read, at the bottom there are all the links to join the Google group. And then you’re part of the community.

 

Kara Kane:

So once you apply to join the Google group, and join the community, then you’re sent a welcome email. Which kind of tells you about the Slack channels, it tells you about the recordings of the monthly calls, it tells you about the events that are coming up. So you can immediately find out what’s going on and how to get involved. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And tell me about applying. Who exactly can join the group?

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s open to people that are working embedded in government, working in user-centered design. So you could be a designer, a user researcher, some working in accessibility, anyone who’s interested in design, and you have to be interested in talking about those things, from any government in the world, is welcome to join.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I don’t know if we could round off with maybe some tips that you, on how to set up your own community, if this is something, if there’s some quick fire tips that you’ve found over learning this community. Sort of, how do you scale, how do you keep momentum going and what tools do you need.

 

Is there anything you’d want to add those?

 

Kara Kane:

I think the first thing is using platforms that people are already on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So…

 

Laura Stevens:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. 

 

Kara Kane:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Please.

 

Just people use Slack, so use Slack. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

People use email, so use Google groups. It makes it so much easier if you make it hard for people to actually get to the platform where the conversation is happening, you’re already putting up a barrier to your community.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So make it really easy, easy to access once you’re part of the community. And easy to, easy to respond and join conversations.

 

Martin Jordan:

And if there are events happening, whether they’re kind of like online calls or like physical meetups with talks, like if you can, try to record stuff. So if there is like material you can share, because people will either kind of like, join communities later. Yeah, do that. 

 

Or as well be not able to attend, and if you can then share the materials so they can still consume it in their own time, it’s really beneficial.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah and I think, building on that, is just having different formats. So not just having a Google group or a Slack group, where it can be really really scary to ask a question or share something. 

 

Having things like monthly calls where you’re kind of, inviting people in to present, inviting people to consume information in a different way, having face to face events where people can network and meet people in a different way. Just having different options for people to feel engaged in the community. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So different formats, use the tools people are already on and record what you do.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

Three excellent tips.

 

Kara Kane:

And help introduce people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is that sort of, facilitating..?

 

Kara Kane:

As a Community Manager. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

It’s really, especially in the beginning, is just help facilitate relationship building. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Arrange lots of cups of coffee.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. So thank you for coming on.

 

Kara Kane:

Thank you!

 

Martin Jordan:

Thank you.

 

Thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. 

 

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcripts on Podbean. 

 

Thank you both again very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

August 27, 2019

A year on from launching the GDS podcast, senior creative writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart talk about their jobs.

 

The pair discuss their career paths and the role of writers in government and how clear writing can help people to do their jobs better.

 

 

Angus Montgomery: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery and I’m a Senior Writer at GDS. And for this episode of the podcast, I’m joined by my colleague Sarah Stewart. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello. I’m also a Senior Writer at GDS. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So our voices might sound quite familiar because both Sarah and I, with our colleague Laura, have been on all the episodes of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done so far and as part of those episodes, we’ve been interviewing people across GDS and across government about their work and talking about the things that they do to help transform government and to build digital services and to make things better for users. 

 

And, we realised that we’re nearly a year into this podcast now, I think this is our 11th episode, and we haven’t actually properly introduced ourselves and talk about what we do, and how our work contributes to digital transformation across government and helps everyone in GDS and across government do their jobs better. So that’s what we intend to do with this podcast.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we’re also going to be sharing our top tips for clear writing, which we’ve put together over the past 3 years of working at GDS, so we’ll be sharing those with you as well.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah, so Sarah and I, just as a bit of background, we’re both Creative Writers at the Government Digital Service. We both joined on the same day. Can you remember what day that was? Testing you. 

 

Sarah Stewart: It was May 23rd. 

 

Angus Montgomery: I thought it was the 22nd. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Strong start. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sarah’s memory is better than mine. May 23rd 2016. And we work as part of a team called the Creative Team in GDS. 

 

And we’re in a team that also has people like filmmakers, production experts, graphic designers, Graham Higgins, who’s also in the room with us, who is doing the production of this podcast and is one of our filmmakers, and audio production and all sorts of other amazing things as well.

 

And our role, the role of our team, is to help everyone in GDS, from Director General down throughout the organisation of all parts talk about their work, communicate their work and explain what it’s doing to help government work better and to make things better for users.

 

Sarah Stewart: Don’t sell us short, Angus. We also write at a ministerial level as well. So it’s from Minister down.

 

Angus Montgomery: So, yeah what we want to do with this podcast as Sarah has already talked about, is explain a bit about our jobs and what we’re here to do, talk a bit about writing and communication and why it’s important and to give our ten top tips, pieces of guidance, principles, whatever it is that you want to call them about how to write and communicate more clearly. 

 

So that’s what we’re going to do. But before we kick that off...Sarah, can you tell me a little bit about what your background is and how you came to work at GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well I don’t know how far we should go back - but at school, the only 2 things that I thought I was good at and enjoyed were English and rounders. And there’s not much you can do with rounders, so I pursued English. I read English at university, came down to London, did my postgrad down here. Became a journalist. Hated every second of it. I was a business journalist and it was a generally terrible experience for me. Although I did pick up some useful things, like always carry a notebook and pen with you, which I still do to this day. 

 

Angus Montgomery: How’s your shorthand?

 

Sarah Stewart: It is non-existent. And also about libel as well, that was an important lesson.

 

Angus Montgomery: Oh yeah, that’s very important.

 

Sarah Stewart: And then I was lucky enough to get a job working at Shelter, which is a housing and homelessness charity and they also campaign for better housing rights and conditions. And I was a Content Writer and Producer there, so I launched their advice Youtube channel, I edited their advice on their website, I launched their advice sound clips, and I edited their blog as well, of case studies.

 

And then after a couple of years, I found out about the job at GDS.

 

Angus Montgomery: What attracted you to GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Funny story actually, I had never heard of GDS before applying. I was at Shelter and someone that I worked with left the job advert on my desk with a post-it that said ‘this is the kind of job you can go for in a few years time’ and I thought ‘Screw that, I'll apply for it now.’ 

 

It wasn’t really my ambition to work in government, but it kind of worked out well. I really enjoy what we do now. But you did know about GDS before you joined.

 

Angus Montgomery: I did. So my background was similar in the sense that I was a journalist, I hadn’t worked doing anything else actually, I’d been a journalist my entire career

 

Sarah Stewart: And you liked it?

 

Angus Montgomery: Uh, yeah. I mean like...Liked is not a strong word.

 

Sarah Stewart:...liked it more than I did? Did you cry in the loos everyday like I did?

 

Angus Montgomery: No, that’s really unpleasant and horrible. I’m sorry that you went through that. But there might have been some loo crying at certain stages. I think the thing about journalism, as you sort of implied, is that when it’s good, it’s really fun and it is a great industry to work in. 

 

And you can do lots of different things, and lots of exciting things and meet lots of interesting people. It is really really tough. And when it’s bad, it is very very unpleasant and a difficult environment to work in. 

 

So I was working for a website called Design Week, which covers the UK design industry. Around the time I became editor was around the time that GDS was setting up and launching and getting a really big profile. And was winning awards like a D&AD black pencil and the design of the year awards, so obviously it was a really really big design story. And I got to know some of the design team in GDS, and I was you know obviously, while that was happening, an observer of what was happening, I was reading all the blog posts, I was looking at all the posters and all the other communication that it was putting out 

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh my god, you’re really putting me to shame.

 

Angus Montgomery: But GDS was a really big story, it looked really interesting to me, was hugely appealing in the sense that of, something similar to what you said, this was an organisation that was serving the whole nation. 

 

And an organisation that was very clearly there to do something good. It was there to help government work better for users and for everyone, for civil servants and everyone. Being involved in something like that was really really appealing, and remains really really appealing, it’s why I still come to work everyday.

 

Before we get onto the kind of, the writing aspect and the top tips, the kind of the educational part of this podcast, what is it that you enjoy most about working at GDS and what do you find most satisfying?

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good question. I’m lucky to say that they are quite a few things that I enjoy. I like the fact that when I write, and that can be if I’m drafting a speech or writing a presentation or helping someone edit a policy document or write a ministerial forward, that I’m actually doing something that’s important to the idea of democracy, because in order for people to make good decisions, they need to know what the facts are. And I like that I can ask the difficult questions that get to the facts, I like that I can challenge people and say ‘no, you need to include more detail’, I can say ‘you should leave this out because it’s maybe not the right time to come out and say this particular thing.’

 

I love the feeling when someone, maybe this is a bit self-indulgent, but when someone is delivering a speech that I’ve written, it’s like the best feeling in the world, because I’m naturally introverted and I know that these words aren’t my words, but when a joke goes down really well and the audience laughs or when you, you know, when the key message has been hit and people understand it and an action is taken, that’s massively rewarding. 

 

But there’s... I get so much pleasure from just the act of writing. I mean when I’m not doing it at GDS, I’m doing it in my spare time. There’s just something really satisfying, I guess like mathematicians, when they do a sum correctly or they workout a formula and it and it all works out wonderfully well, it’s writing a sentence that flows beautifully and is truthful and you know, moves people to do something or to consider something in a different way. 

 

So I don’t think there’s really one part that I don’t enjoy. I mean I hate meetings, but doesn’t everyone? What, how about you?

 

Angus Montgomery: I think something similar. Although I’m kind of less wedded in a weird way to the craft of writing. I mean writing, it’s not something that I don’t enjoy but I kind of, I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure in a sense from, like constructing a sentence or the kind of technical aspects of it. But the thing I enjoy most is, I really like the idea that writing is structured thinking. 

 

So when you write something down, you need to be really clear and it needs to be really structured and it needs to make sense. And so the thing I get most satisfaction from is, when you’re working with someone to help them explain a difficult concept that can exist maybe only in their own head, and they’re explaining it in a way that they can’t fully articulate, you’re just about understanding it.  And there’s that breakthrough moment when you write something down and you show it to them and they go ‘yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say!’  

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: ‘That makes total sense, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do’. That to me is the really satisfying part of this, is like getting. And I suppose corollary to that is the fact that we work with really intelligent, really nice people as well, but really super intelligent people that are really driven and really focussed on what they’re doing, and have these really complex things going on in their heads.

 

And maybe because they are so close to that work, the aren’t always capable or don’t always find it easy to communicate as clearly as possible. And that’s really our role is to go in there and say, ‘right, let me inside your head, let me inside all those really deep technical details and All the different things that you’re thinking about. And I will help you communicate this clearly’. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And like that to me is the really satisfying part, it’s like being the bridge between this really intelligent person who has a really complicated idea, and the person who needs to understand that.

 

At the risk of asking I suppose a cliched question, tell me about your day-to-day, and what it is that you actually do, and what it is that we do and what we write and produce?

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, so we write a whole host of things. So there’s obviously the kind of straightforward written content, so blog posts, press articles, op-eds. I tend to...

 

Angus Montgomery: What’s an op-ed?

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh sorry. Good question. It’s, well actually I was, I…

 

Angus Montgomery: I don’t know the answer to this actually, which is why I…

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s either…So there are some people who think it’s an opinion editorial. So someone just speaking about a subject that they know. Other people think that it means ‘opposite the editorial page’ But basically what we take it to mean, and what I’m doing I think, is writing an opinion piece so…

 

Angus Montgomery: For a newspaper or magazine.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah for a newspaper or a magazine. And so I’ll be writing on behalf of somebody, I don’t think it’s any secret to say that you know in government, there are speech writers and there are other...people like us exist in order to kind of help Senior Civil Servants communicate. 

 

So, I tend to specialise in speeches but we also write presentations for people across GDS, we might be writing forewords for strategy papers, we might be editing, you know, policy documents, but that’s a very small part of what we do I think. And we also write scripts for animations and films and do things like podcasts.

 

Angus Montgomery: So we wanted to give you ten principles that help us communicate clearly, and that we think you might benefit from as well. And some of them are you know, things that might seem obvious and some of them may be are a bit more left field. But they are all things that we kind of, help us to our day-to-day jobs. 

 

So without further ado, Sarah do you want to give us point one and tell us a little bit about it?

 

Sarah Stewart: OK so my first principle is: Establish ‘The Point’. Before you write anything, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, a presentation, a love letter – establish what the point of your writing is. And ‘The Point’ comprises two parts – and I’m thinking of trademarking this actually, it’s: What you want you want to say and why it needs to be said. We’ll come onto audience in just a second. 

 

So once you’ve established what the point is, write it on a post-it note, stick it at the top of your doc. It will be your guiding star. It will keep you relevant, it will keep you focused and if you can’t figure out what the point is, don’t write. Don’t agree to do the speech. Don’t agree to do the presentation. The chances are you’ll come up with the point at a future date, but if you’re really struggling to establish what it is that you want to say and the reason for saying it, just don’t do it. You’ll waste people’s time and wasting people’s time is a sin. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Point three of the point, I think. You’ve got what you want to say and why you want to say it but also who you want to say it to.The audience, as you mentioned,  is an important thing. You have to assume that the thing you’re saying is interesting to someone or to a group of people, and then you have to work out who that group of people is. Knowing that will help you work out the best way of communicating your message. It might be that the thing you want to say or write is best done as a blog post, or it might best done as a film, or best done presentation or it might be better to draw it as a picture and create a poster of it. Knowing the what, the why and who you’re trying to tell it to, will help you shape your message and the way you’re communicating your message. 

 

My first point so number 2 of our principles is, ‘write it like you’d say it’. So I mentioned earlier about a big part of our role, or the main part of our role is to help organisations, this organisation, communicate in a human voice.

 

To me a human voice is the voice that you would use to describe something to a friend when you’re you know, having lunch or at the pub or at the park or whatever. Like if this is that thing about like, if you’re trying to describe a really difficult technical concept, then think about how you would explain it to a friend or to your mum or to you know, son or daughter or whatever it might be.

 

And then write down the way that you would do that. So it shouldn’t be really that much difference between the written word and the spoken word. Although obviously you’ll have far fewer sort of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and all those sorts of things.

 

But like a human voice written on page should sound like speech to me. So when you read something, it should sound like someone is saying it to you, someone is speaking to you in the way that, in a sort of slightly informal, kind of suppose, kind of friendly tone of voice but in a way that’s understandable and relatable.

 

And that really helps you to, I think, get away from what can be a quite, there can be a formality about the written word, and I think that this is again, why some people find writing quite a sort of scary prospect, is it can feel like you have to use the longest most complex, most impressive words possible. 

 

And actually you really don’t. You need to use the shortest, clearest, simplest words possible just as you would if you were trying to explain something verbally really clearly. So write it like you’d say it, and the way, a thing that can help you to do that is, as you’re writing something down, read it out.

 

Does it make sense if you say it out loud? Does it make sense if you say it in your head? Does that article that you’ve written sound like something you would naturally say? If it does, then you’re broadly along the right lines I think.

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good tip. And it neatly links it my next point, which is ‘don’t try and sound clever’.

 

Essentially what you want to be is clear and concise and don’t over do it. Don’t try and impress anyone because you are probably doing something that is impressive. You probably have all the vocabulary you need to express it clearly. Leave it there. 

 

This reminds me of a good quote by the investor Charlie Munger. He said ‘if you want to be thought of as a good guy, be a good guy.’ So if you want to come across as smart, then be smart and explain what you’re doing. But don’t go out there having an agenda that you have to come across as something. It’s inauthentic. 

 

You see it, particularly in academic writing. People who are so in that world become - it’s almost impossible to cut through what they’re saying. For example, my friend sent me the abstract of his book and his opening sentence was 58 words long with no punctuation. I could individually pick out what every single word meant, I knew the meaning of each word but in the syntax, in that sentence, I had no idea what was going on. And I was trying to give positive feedback and I said look I’m really sorry, I don’t know what it is you’re trying to say and he said: ‘Oh, well, it’s written for academics’ - well, presumably at some point you want other people to read it! 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sometimes in this organisation as well, people say ‘oh it’s written for Senior Civil Servants’ or it’s written for a particular audience or it’s written someone whose a specialist, but they are people too. When you’re a senior civil servant, you don’t suddenly become this person who communicates in a really arcane fashion or understands things in a really complex fashion. You’re also a person who needs to understand things really, really quickly, so being able to write things down and explain things in a clear and accessible fashion is appropriate for any reader, regardless of who they are. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, actually there’s a really good discussion if you want some further reading or further listening. It’s Stephen Pinker in conversation with Ian McEwan on academic writing and the importance of clear writing. So after you’ve listened to this podcast, do give it a watch it’s on YouTube. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Which leads nicely, these are segueing quite nicely together I think, to my point or my next point. Which is something that we say quite a lot at GDS, which is ‘show the thing’. And by that we mean if you’re talking about something or you’re trying to tell someone about a product or a service or a thing, just show it.

 

Explain how it works, say what it is, don’t use metaphors, don’t try to dress it up, don’t try to make it sound like it’s doing things that it isn’t. Just explain what it does.

 

Because as you’ve just said, if the thing that you’ve built or the thing that you’re trying to describe is valuable and worth talking about, then all you need to do is explain it clearly and it will do the work for you. 

 

You don’t need to dress it up, you don’t need to put marketing on it, you don’t need to you know make it sound like it’s the incredible next you know, use loads of adjectives like ‘stunning’ and ‘life changing’. You just need to show it and if it’s a worthwhile thing then the reader will understand that and accept that and will be on board with it.

 

So show the thing, talk about it as clearly as possible, say what it does, and that’s all you need to do. That’s basically it.

 

Sarah Stewart: I’ve come up with an original next principle, Angus. Burn! Which is about feedback and welcoming feedback and a sub point of this, is the message: you are not your writing. 

 

So the other day, some kids came in for work experience. Can I call them kids? Some students came in for work experience and I spoke to them about my job and writing more generally. And a question they asked was ‘what do you do when someone gives you really bad feedback about your writing?’ I think the most important and first thing that you should learn and it’s the most difficult thing that writers have to come to terms with is: you are not your writing. 

 

Yes, it has come out of your head and through your hands and is informed by the experiences you’ve had, but once it leaves you, it is a separate entity. And once you have that disconnect, that it is a separate entity, you stop being precious about it and you start thinking about the work and the work is the most important thing. 

 

So, when someone says to you ‘this is a really confusing piece of writing’ or ‘this is a really confusing essay ‘ or ‘this is a muddled blog post’, they are not saying ‘you are a terrible person.’ They are not saying ‘you’re an imbecile’ or ‘you are a failure as a writer’. They are saying ‘this is muddled’ ‘this is confusing’. It doesn't feel good to be criticised or to have negative feedback, but it’s a gift. It’s an opportunity for you to...

 

Angus Montgomery: Feedback is a gift

 

Sarah Stewart: It really is. I was thinking about the best advice I was ever given as a writer which was being told, when I was a journalist, which is probably why I hated it so much, that I was a rubbish writer. So I think I needed to hear that things weren’t very good or I would have been writing, you know, like a crazy woman for the rest of my life. You need feedback, you need to welcome that in. Because it’s always about the work, it’s never really about you, and it’s never even about you when you’re writing memoir or yoru autobiography, it’s still a separate thing.

 

Angus Montgomery: That leads, leads very neatly into my next point.

 

Which is another GDSism, something that we say quite a lot at GDS which is, ‘the team is the editor’.

 

And before I got into this, because it’s a common thing we say at GDS, I should probably give a shoutout to some of the original Creative Team and Creative Writers at GDS, who you know we’re standing on the shoulders of giants and all that stuff, a lot of certainly my ways of working and thinking have come from these people.

 

So people like Giles Turnbull, Ella Fitzsimmons, Matt Sheret, Amy McNichol and this is the thing I used to hear a lot from them, ‘the team is the editor’ and that means, to pick up on exactly your point, we’re not doing this writing on our own, like we are the writer kind of in charge ultimately of the document or the piece of writing that will go out but we’re working in collaboration with a lot of other people.

 

So we could be working in collaboration with the person who has developed the idea or product or service or whatever it is that we’re trying to communicate. We’ll be working with a comms specialist who will be thinking about what’s the best way to best place to publish this. 

 

You might be working with someone who edits the blog. And we’re working with the rest of our team as well because we’re not working in isolation. Pretty much everything that I write, I share with you and I think vice versa. 

 

And you have to, you’re nothing without an editor. A writer is nothing without a good editor. No book that you have read and no newspaper article that you’ve read and no film that you’ve seen and no commercial you’ve seen on TV is just a result of a single writer...

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s so…

 

Angus Montgomery: ...with their vision.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, that’s so true. And I think that’s why people get so put off writing as well because they seem, people think of writers as, like, strange creatures inspired that they you know, get hit on the head by muse and are able to write perfect prose.

 

But it goes through loads and loads and loads of editing to get that kind of pure, perfect sentence. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So ‘the team is the editor’ and the editor is the unsung hero of writing as well. They are the person in the background that is making all these things work. The reason people give feedback isn’t because they want to undermine you or attack you, it’s because they want to make the work better. And you have to welcome that and find that as well. As a writer it’s really important not to isolate yourself and do it on your own, and plough away and...

 

Sarah Stewart: It is nerve-wracking to share your work and you do have to be aware of when, for example, say I’m writing a speech, it’s not unusual to have twenty people in the document all feeding in their ideas and you have to be able to distinguish: what is a ‘showstopper’ so a fact that needs to go in or something that has to come out because it’s incorrect, what’s personal opinion and what’s style. And if you have a really clear idea of that, there does come a point where you can say, ‘Actually, no, I’ve taken in everything I need to take in and I’m happy with the piece now.’

 

Just to add to that, sharing with the team and the team is the editor, of all things I’ve written and shared with you or shared with the team, I’ve never had a case where it’s been made worse by a suggestion, the work has always improved.

 

Angus Montgomery: If the person who is giving you feedback understands what this piece of writing is trying to do and that person is sort of vaguely competent, then they will give you useful constructive feedback. 

 

Sarah Stewart: I feel like maybe we’re rambling on this or maybe I’m rambling on this, but In terms of feedback givers, it’s very easy to criticise someone. It’s very easy to say ‘this isn’t good’. It takes intelligence to say what’s not quite working about it. So when you are giving feedback to someone, really consider, first of all, of course, their feelings because you don’t want to come across as, well you don’t want to be an awful person, but what’s useful for them to know about this. And we’ve got some fantastic posters around the office on how to give feedback effectively. So just make sure that if you’re required to give feedback, you’re doing it in an intelligent, kind way.

 

Angus Montgomery: In a constructive fashion.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, better. 

 

Angus Montgomery: and your next point?

 

Sarah Stewart:... is to ‘read’. Reading is as important as writing. If you want to be a really good writer, you have to read lots and you should read good things. You know like the classics like Nabokov, James Joyce and Jane Austen. Yes of course you should read them because they’re fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to read a good writer. 

 

But also, just  don’t be too much of a snob about it.Read a Mills and Boon book, read Fifty Shades of Grey, and again no shade on E.L James because she’s a multi-millionaire doing what she loves.

 

Angus Montgomery: It takes skill to write that stuff surely.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. In particular I would say read poetry. Not only because I think it’s super cool, poetry can teach you a lot about conveying complex ideas in a very short space of time and you know, we’re you know kids of the digital age, we don’t have a very long attention span so understanding how to kind of compress ideas is very important.

 

But poetry can teach you a lot about the music of a sentence. And especially for speech writing, it’s particularly important. A poem can teach you about the sound of words, the meter, how a piece scans, it’s called scansion. So there’s no alchemy to writing really well, it is just about practicing writing and reading. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Any poem in particular or poet in particular?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well...good question. I would recommend the Confessional poets, so like Sylvia Plath. But actually, do you know what? Any American poet from the 1950s onwards because American poetry in particular, they have a way of, I say ‘they’ in a very general sense, I would recommend the Confessional School and the New York School in particular  – – as you’ve asked – because they just say it how it is. 

 

And also the Beat poets as well, although they can talk a lot in abstraction, you can learn a lot by their directness.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: So yeah. Ginsberg, Kerouac.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Frank O'Hara.

 

Angus Montgomery: Very minimal viable words. 

 

My next principle, next tip, is quite a practical one. And it’s something that might not work for everyone, but I find really really helpful, which is to never start with a blank page.

 

So if you’re writing something, the scariest thing is when you kind of open up a Word doc or a Google doc or have a physical sheet of blank paper in front of you, and you’re like ‘oh my god, what do I do with this now?’ like ‘I need to turn this from this blank sheet into a speech or an article or a blog post or a presentation or whatever it might be. 

 

And that blankness is the most terrifying part of this and starting is the most terrifying part of any project and writing is no different. So the way that I deal with that is when I have a blank page in front of me, I immediately go to Google or other search engines are available obviously, and or previous pieces that I’ve done that are similar, copy paste and just throw as much text as I can on to that page, that even if it’s only tangentially similar, gives me something to work from.

 

So that I’m not starting from scratch, so that I have something to bounce ideas off of or something re-work or something that guides me in the right direction, and also takes away that fear of you know, just having a totally blank page in front of you.

 

Sarah Stewart: I do that all the time actually. If I’m writing a speech for example, I always write ‘good morning or good afternoon everyone’. And then if anyone asks me if I’ve made any progress, I can at least say I’ve made a start!

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah exactly. The vital start is there. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. It’s psychologically important to have something down on paper. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: You’re right.

 

Angus Montgomery: So I think it’s that, it’s that starting and then sort of flowing, flowing from there basically. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And what’s your next principle?

 

Sarah Stewart: So my next principle I’ve entitled, ‘enough is enough’. So just don’t overdo it. Just write enough, and enough doesn’t mean writing an epic poem nor does it mean writing a haiku. Sorry, there are a lot of poetry allusions in this – but it means writing enough to get the job done. 

 

And the poet Frank O’Hara had a lovely quote about, you should read it, it’s called...it’s in a piece of writing that he called Personism: A Manifesto. And he describes writing and how effective writing is wearing a piece of clothing so it fits you perfectly, so it does exactly the job that it’s meant to do. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s showing the thing.

 

Sarah Stewart: And you might ‘show the thing’...it’s a very confusing analogy. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s a very confusing mixing, we’re mixing several metaphors here to prove a point.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: But yeah. And bringing me, without really a segue in this one, but bringing us nicely nevertheless to the final point which is, ‘stay human’.

 

And this is not necessarily a writing point, this is something obviously that we should be all doing all the time in whatever work we do, but the reason I’m talking about it, and we’ve touched on this several times, writing isn’t something that we just do in isolation on our own 

 

Writing our, the writing that we do is helping one person, one human being, convey a message to another person, another human being or a group of them. And the people in that process are really really important, like the written word is important, but the people in that process are the most important parts.

 

So just when we’re dealing with people, we always try to be as nice and humble and listen as much as we can and advice and guide and all those sorts of things. But just try and do it nicely because it can be a stressful situation for people. 

So thank you Sarah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you Angus. This has been nice, hasn’t it?

 

Angus Montgomery: This has been nice.

 

Sarah Stewart: So that brings us to the end of our 10 principles. This podcast will be embedded into a blog post, which will be published on the GDS blog. Please leave your comments for clear writing and any advice that you have for others.

 

Angus Montgomery: Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the GDS podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and if you want to listen to previous episodes that we’ve done or what to subscribe for the future, then please just do to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from and hit the subscribe button.

 

And we hope to have you as a listener again soon. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Farewell. 

 

Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

June 28, 2019

Listen to this month’s episode of the Government Digital Service podcast to hear about the award winning step by step work on GOV.UK. Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, from the GOV.UK team, explain why and how the navigation was created and its impact on users. 

A full transcript of the episode follows. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the award-winning ‘Step by Step’ navigation on GOV.UK. This is a navigation that breaks down complex tasks into simple steps. The navigation follows you throughout your journey, indicating what to do now and next. It also shows you what previous steps you might have missed. For example, getting a provisional driving licence before booking a driving theory test. To tell me more about this is Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, so, please, could you introduce yourself and tell me what you do here at GDS, for Kate first?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, so I am Service Design Lead for GOV.UK. That basically means my work focuses on 2 things. It’s looking at how the platform of GOV.UK helps government to deliver services, but also looking at how the GOV.UK programme, as a group of people, are helping government to improve those services.

 

Laura Stevens:


Sounds great, and Sam?

 

Sam Dub:  


I’m a product manager working on GOV.UK. For the last couple of years, really, I’ve been focusing on navigation of GOV.UK. That means, really, making things easy to find, but also, with ‘Step by Step’ navigation, making things easier to do. Ways that we can join things up so they make sense for users is a key part of that.

 

Laura Stevens:


Okay. Your team won a prestigious design award last month. That was from D&AD. How did you feel when you found out about that?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Really exciting. I think it’s like you spend a lot of time looking inwards at government and having a strong belief that you’re working on the right things and doing things that make sense, but it’s very nice to get recognition from people outside of your world of work, and peers across the industry, that the thing that you’re working on is a good thing and that it feels meaningful beyond just the context that we’re working in.

 

Sam Dub:


I think one of the things that’s really nice about it is it’s an iteration on GOV.UK. A lot of the work there are like re-launches or rebrands, and this is like a continuation of some of the thinking that’s been around GOV.UK since the beginning. It feels like a kind of validation of a process of iteration, like week by week, month by month, we’ve got to this new place. It’s quite exciting.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


I was a bit unsure, actually, whether we would win an award, because obviously GOV.UK has won 2 awards previously, mostly focused on… They were awards for content design, and I was unsure whether entering this they would just see it like, “GOV… It’s just the same thing.”

 

Laura Stevens:


You’re just getting all the awards, aren’t you?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


They’re just, “What do you want another award for?” But we entered it in a different category and I think they did understand that we’re trying to achieve slightly different things. Driven by the same principles, we’re now focusing on doing slightly different things and working in slightly different ways than we did 5 years ago, or whenever we won the previous awards.

 

Sam Dub:


It built on that work. The early achievement, the big achievement of GOV.UK in its first year was just getting everything together in the same place. That’s something that Neil Williams was talking about on… I think it was the first or second episode of the podcast.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Yes, the first podcast; yes.

 

Sam Dub:


He was leading that work. Just getting all those departmental websites shut down and all that content moved into one place was a huge achievement. Then there was a, kind of, follow-on challenge for that, which was like, “How do we make this stuff findable and usable, and how do we join this content up and these transactions up across departments?”

We’re able to do what we’re doing because of that work that came before us, but it follows in a, kind of, tradition of ideas of, like, joining things up for users, making things easy, like making sure that users don’t have to understand the structure of government in order to find what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:  


This is what I was going to talk about, like how ‘Step by Step’ came about. What was the genesis of it?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


It’s, kind of, the reason that I joined GOV.UK. I was one of the first service designers to join GDS as an organisation. Lou Downe joined first and established service design as a profession within GDS, and then they brought in myself and another person. I joined GOV.UK with the idea that, “Okay, you’re going to be on GOV.UK and you’re going to think about how does GOV.UK do services?” 

I’ve been at GDS for about 4 years now, and it took, probably, about a year and a half before we could kick off this work in any meaningful way, because we had to still do quite a lot of technical work on GOV.UK, bringing all the content into one place so that we could do consistent universal navigation across all content. There was quite a lot of technical debt to deal with. 

It’s been ticking along and our ideas have been evolving, a year and a half ago, we were able to really kick this work off in earnest and think about how all of those ideas translate into something actual, real.

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes, and it’s such an attractive idea. For me, somebody who didn’t have all that background, coming to it at that point, it was just such an exciting idea – the idea that we could have, like, a single page that would tell you everything you needed to do in order to get something done, something big, and chunky, and meaningful, like learning to drive, or starting a business, or employing someone, these complicated processes. If, as government, we could just create one page that’s well structured and explains exactly what you need to do, that’s such a valuable thing for users, for citizens. That was a really exciting idea to just pick up and run with.

 

Laura Stevens:


Why did you pick the first one, which was ‘Learning to Drive’? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There was quite a lot of previous work done in that area. When Lou first joined GDS, they went off to Swansea, and worked a lot with DVLA, and were looking at a lot of the driving services, so we had quite a historical knowledge base in that area and already had quite a good understanding of that journey. 

From that respect, it was quite a good one to pick up, because we had stuff we could build on, but it also is a journey that’s quite simple, and linear, and quite easily understood.

 

Sam Dub:


I think it’s, kind of, exemplifies what this pattern, this design pattern, this new feature on GOV.UK is for, in that inside ’Learning to Drive’ you’ve got a load of guidance. You’ve got stuff like… The ‘Highway Code’ is probably the best-known part of that. You’ve got all these kinds of transactions you need to do with government. 

Before you start, you’ve got to get a provisional driving licence. That’s a transaction with government. Then, at some point in that process, you’ve got to do your theory test. You’ve got to take some driving lessons. Then you’ve got to take your practical test. 

You’ve got to do those things in the right order, like you can’t take a driving test until you’ve got your provisional licence. So, it was just a really nice kind of model for how we could start organising that content in a simple sequence that made sense to people, to make that easier.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


‘Learn to Drive’ had quite a good mix of things across it that we could start testing the pattern slightly about how it could deal with real processes that a user’s going through, not just the government processes.

 

Laura Stevens:


I was actually going to talk through the design of that, because it went through quite a few rounds, iterations. 

Sam Dub:


Like with most things, we start in identifying a need. We knew that we needed to join up transactions and guidance, because you need both. You need to engage with the guidance, and you need to do these transactions, so we started developing prototypes for how we do that. 

As with most things in GDS and GOV.UK, we start with user research. That’s bringing in people who are in the process of learning to drive. We put these early prototypes in front of them and we really asked them just to go through the… To engage with them naturally, as if they were in their own homes, and do the parts of the journey where they were at, at the moment. 

That allowed us to evolve a design over… I think it was, in the creation of the original pattern, about 10 rounds of user research. Each time, we were bringing a slightly different prototype, like building on the learnings and insights from the previous round, and really honing this design pattern to a point where users felt comfortable with it. It felt natural, it felt intuitive to them.

Laura Stevens:


You also went up to Neath, as well.

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
To the Digital Accessibility Centre. Yes, that was good. We went a whole crew of us. We were, like, the back end, front end: me, the designer; you, the product manager; user research. We all went along and we tested it with, I think, around 10 people who were in the Digital Accessibility Centre who have varying access needs, whether that be cognitive ability or sight, or perhaps it’s… I think one of the people we tested with has ADHD [Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. There were quite a lot of different access needs that we tested against, and that was… It was such an interesting day, yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, we learnt tons from that, and that directly translated into improvements to the designs that make it work better – for everybody, actually. 

 

Laura Stevens:


Now there are 41 ‘Step by Step’ lives. You’ve got quite a range. You’ve got, obviously, the first one, ‘Learning to Drive a Car’, ‘Getting Married’, ‘Getting Divorced’. On a slightly lighter note, you’ve got ‘Reporting Treasure’, as well.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. 

 

Sam Dub:


Yes.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


My favourite.

 

Sam Dub:


For the metal detectorists out there, if you find your Anglo-Saxon hoard, unfortunately you have to tell the government about that. You can’t just keep it and so that’s a ‘Step by Step’ process. It’s about, like, we deliberately picked early on these wildly diverse types of processes from, like, something really emotionally taxing and legally complicated, like divorce, and then something like, if you find buried treasure or the cargo of a shipwreck, you have to tell government about that. We were testing to make sure that this pattern could handle all these different kinds of interactions that people have to make with government.

 

Laura Stevens:


How did you go about creating these step by step?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   


We’ve developed a bit of a standardised process now where we’ve now got enough traction with government that in the early days we were going out to departments and saying, “We think your thing would work really well as part of this user journey thing that we’re doing on GOV.UK. You don’t really know what it is yet, but we’d love to give it a go. Can you be our alpha partners?” to a point where we’ve now got enough traction with government that they’re coming to us so we’ve actually got hundreds of ‘Step by Step’ journeys in our backlog that we could build, and now it’s about picking up them, based on prioritisation.

And once we… We have 2 different starting points. Sometimes you have a really tangible idea of what the journey is and who the users are. When you’ve got that idea, you can start building a draft of that journey internally in GOV.UK with our content designers, who are brilliant service designers, actually. They interrogate the content on GOV.UK and start mapping out a draft of this thing. 

Then, alongside that, we start working out who are the departments involved? Who do we need to get into a room to go through this journey, validate it, make sure that we are going to be pointing at the right things, in the right order, so that users can do all the things they need to do?

Sometimes you start off with a much more fuzzy service area where you’re not quite sure what journeys should be built in that area, or it’s just it’s a bit complicated. You need to think: how are you going to break that down? 

 

Laura Stevens:


Does that journey happen here at GDS, or would you go out to the departments?

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s generally whatever works for the participants. I think this is, maybe, a thing that, outside government, people are not necessarily so aware of: that, with a journey like employing somebody, that’s how a user sees it in terms of, “Okay, I need to hire someone for my business,” but actually that’s owned. The guidance and the transactions are owned by 5 different departments that could be in 5 different offices, in 5 different parts of the country. 

What’s exciting is getting all those people in a room together and going, “Actually, collectively, as government, we own this thing. We own the journey. You don’t just own your little bit. We all, together, can make the journey of employing someone really simple, quick, seamless.” It’s really exciting getting those people in the room. People are generally really up for that, like they’re enthusiastic about making the whole thing better.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


More often than not, as well, these workshops, it’s the first time that these people have ever met or thought about how their things join up. That’s really one of the key reasons why this ‘Step by Step’ stuff exists. It’s not just about creating a good experience for users who are trying to do things with government. It’s like 20% that, but it’s like 80% getting government to understand their services, and know who else in government they need to collaborate with when they’re thinking about improving those services, and getting them to take ownership of that as a joined-up, cross-departmental group of people.

 

Sam Dub:


That’s what we really hope happens with this stuff, is that when we’re just getting started in terms of, like, we’re at 41 at the moment, there are hundreds of these kinds of services that the government provides.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  
So many – so many. 

 

Sam Dub:


We’ve got a lot of work to do.

 

Laura Stevens:


You’ve been busy.

 

Sam Sub:  


But then once, even for … So, the 40 that we’ve mapped out – and you can go see them on GOV.UK – they’re also just the beginning. Those things are 7 or 8 step processes. It’s really great to have a group of people come together and, maybe, have a think about: “Okay, now we’ve mapped it out and seen it all in one place, actually that’s quite complicated,” like, “This, maybe, doesn’t need to be an 8 step process. Maybe we have a policy goal which is reducing this down to 3 steps.” That as, like, Step By Steps’ as an enabler of, like, transformation and improvement of services is one of our goals for this work.

 

Kate Ivey Williams:


It’s journey mapping, basically, which is like… As a service designer, that’s our bread and butter, is doing journey mapping, because that’s how you understand how everything works and what’s going wrong, but it’s translating that into something that’s, kind of, shiny and people want it. 

 

Laura Stevens:


There have been some really good outcomes, I’ve got some figures, like since launch it’s been used by 10.5 million people. Is that still correct? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes, possibly more because I think that’s the numbers for the overview pages, which are… Within every ‘Step by Step’ journey you’ve got, like, the overview page, which is the journey on one page, but then every page within that end-to-end service will also have the ‘Step by Step’ navigation on. Actually, there are more people using the navigation on the content and transaction pages than they are using the overview pages, so yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, that’s one of the key insights that are shaping GOV.UK, is the fact that users generally start from search, and they land deep in GOV.UK on content, or they might only think about the process in terms of a transaction. They might think about driving in terms of:  “Okay, I’ve got to take a test.” Actually, there’s a load of stuff you need to do before you get to there. It’s about helping users, when they arrive on a piece of content, to go, “Actually, this is part of a 5 step process. Maybe I need to hop back a few steps, do a little bit first, and then I can do this bit.” 

We’re making it clear on the site. You’ll see it looks like a kind of underground map on the right-hand side of webpages. It’s a beautiful, responsive design, so it looks good on mobile, too. It’ll show you exactly, using this kind of underground line metaphor, exactly where you are in that process. 

We’ve seen that in the lab, users telling us, like, “This is really useful. This makes this process seem manageable,” for some things that often don’t, things that people often need, maybe get professional help or have to call and have to get a lawyer to come and help them do it because it feels so vast and unmanageable. Just by breaking it down and saying, “This is what you need to do now. This is what you need to do next,” really, really helps people.

Laura Stevens:


How do you know that people are reading the content and making use of it?

 

Sam Dub:  


I think we start with user research, but then we start looking for data at [site] scale [when we] start publishing things on GOV.UK. One of the things that we developed alongside the ‘Step by Step’ navigation is this new component. You’ll see it at the bottom of every single page on GOV.UK. It’s just got one very short question in a little blue bar at the bottom of the page, and it just says, ‘Is this useful, yes or no?’. It’s a kind of live usefulness vote that we’ve got running on every page of the site. 

This is a common technique across the web. We didn’t invent this, but it gives you a very useful starting metric for what’s working for users and what’s not. It’ll often flag an issue that you then might want to take into a user research lab and look at more in detail: “Actually, what’s going wrong here?” But one of the first signs we had that we were like, “Really on the right track here,” is that the usefulness scores for the new ‘Step by Step’ journeys that we published – the first [set of] ‘Step by Step’ journeys – were way higher than some of the things that they were replacing, and equivalent formats. 

We had, like 80%, 90% usefulness scores, which were great news for us. I think the no prompt, if you say, ‘No, this page isn’t useful,’ you’re prompted to give us a bit of feedback. If one of the ‘Step by Steps’ isn’t working for you, there is this mechanism for people to say, “Actually, this is why. This is the bit you’ve… You’ve missed this bit,” or, “I’m in this circumstance and this doesn’t work for me.” It’s a way of us getting feedback at scale from users, and that’s always where we’re focused. We’re always watching the live performance data of what we’re doing, to make sure that it’s right for the circumstance, that it’s right for where we’ve applied it.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
We know it helps people because we’ve seen, for example, the ‘Applying for tax-free childcare’, once we introduce the ‘Step by Step’ – well, the hypothesis before we built the ‘Step by Step’ was that people were not checking whether it was right for them, or they weren’t checking their eligibility before jumping into the transaction itself to apply. They were using the application process as a bit of an eligibility checker, which is not what it’s built for. 

Because of that, a lot of people were dropping out, or failing, or applying for the wrong thing. After introducing the ‘Step by Step’ navigation, in the analytics we saw more people who were hitting the transaction page but then jumping back to the eligibility guidance, and then coming back to the transaction and going through it successfully because they were going through with confidence that this was the right thing for them. Fewer people were applying for it incorrectly.

 

Sam Dub:


That – those kind improvements, getting people just, like, not jumping into transactions that are wrong for them, filling in the right form – is like, one, it saves users tons of time, and primarily that’s what we care about. The secondary impact of that is that also, in turn, saves government loads of money, like having to deal with forms that aren’t filled in right, or calls to call centres because someone doesn’t understand how stuff [has been]… How a service works. That also costs government money, and civil servants time. So, by making things better for users, it has this benefit of saving government time and money, as well, which is really nice.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


I’m nodding. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Can you give me a step by step to making a ‘Step by Step’?

Sam Dub:

There’s a serious one. As a family, we’ve been talking a lot about lasting power of attorney, and everyone in my family is healthy and good, but my parents are in their late 60s and it’s a sensible thing for people to start talking about and planning ahead. 

So, within, like, family WhatsApp groups and email, people are just pinging around links to GOV.UK guidance, going, ‘Have a look at this. Is this like…?’ Because there’s a different role for the person who is making the lasting power of attorney, and the people who will, essentially, have an obligation to look after that person if something was to happen to their health. 

We’re pinging around guidance, discussing this, and I’m sitting there going, “We should totally do this,” like, “There’s a user need here.” This is complicated. There are decisions being taken. It’s a thing that some people go and seek legal advice about. 

Whilst, as a product manager, I wouldn’t abuse my position to get stuff made that’s helpful to me, there’s an indication that there might be a need there. That’s something that we could do the research to actually see if there really was something there, but I’d love to see that happen.

 

Laura Stevens:


How would you go about doing that if you wanted to create that particular one?

 

Sam Dub:  


In that case, you would look at the parts of the service and the guidance that exists around it. Then you get someone like Kate to come and run this, these workshops that we’ve now got pretty practised at, but Kate can probably tell you what happens.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, less me and more the content designers, because they are experts in knowing what’s on GOV.UK and how it all fits together. They’re really good. Content design is basically about explaining government services in a really clear way so that people understand them. 

And I think we’ve now got to a point where we’ve got the right balance where we’re taking something in that helps them share their knowledge and helps us to get moving quickly so that we can give them something back quickly that is the results of their collaboration.

 

Sam Dub:


Invariably, something does emerge that’s new and that is a new way of framing something. That is something that no one department could have done on their own.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Exactly.

 

Sam Dub:


We certainly couldn’t have come, arrived with that up our sleeve and said, like, “This is how it’s going to be structured.” It’s a genuine collaborative process where the input of the expertise in the departments about the different parts of those journeys come together to create this thing that is, hopefully, framed in a way that makes sense to users and is how they think about it, rather than how government thinks about that problem.

 

Laura Stevens:


Yes, I was going to touch on that, how you’re making government think about itself as a place that delivers services. It sounds like, [with all] this collaboration, that’s been a key outcome from this.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There are a lot going on across government to help them think about things in a slightly different way, to help them think about themselves as service providers. Like, the new service standard is really strong on that, and about getting government to think about services and whole problems, and tackling those collaboratively, but I think ‘Step by Step’ is one of the really tangible tools that enables departments to start work on that. It’s the first step on the road, I think, yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:


And I should probably also finish the Step by Step. Once the workshop has been done, what’s the next stage with your service here? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Usually, if we’re going into that workshop with a fairly good idea of the journey and we have that very draft-y thing in the publishing tool, as the conversations are going on with the departments that’s been facilitated by someone from our team, someone else in our team is sitting in the background, updating the draft of that thing in the publishing tool. 

So, by the end of the workshop we can show them the tangible output, a sort of first-draft example of what they’ve been discussing, with the caveat that we need to take that away and do a bit more massaging of the content.

Then the thing gets “2i” internally. That’s a jargon-y term for it gets reviewed by another content designer within GOV.UK. Then we send it out for fact-check with departments. This follows our standard mainstream guidance fact-check process, where it goes to the subject-matter experts within departments, who then say, “Yes, that is factually correct. Go ahead and sign it off.” Or they give us feedback about, “Actually, you’ve misunderstood something there.” 

 

Sam Dub:


I always enjoy when it goes to the lawyers. That’s when you know it’s like… That’s when you know you’re changing stuff, because the lawyers are there to make sure that, in the way that we’re presenting this in a simple way, we aren’t straying from what’s legally correct, and we aren’t misleading people, but we are… Presenting some of these complicated legal processes as a simple one-pager does mean it needs to get read and fact-checked by a lawyer in the process. There is often this wide range of expertise that we need to consult, and people who, in the process of reframing this stuff, we’ve had to consult, but everything’s gone live. At every point, we’ve reached a consensus. When everyone sees it at the end, they go, “Oh,” like, “That’s better.” 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Does it go back to that point of, exposing those…? Perhaps the policy challenges that this is what part of the process is.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. I think sometimes a confusing and complex policy is hidden in guidance that is spread across GOV.UK. When you extract it and expose it in this really simplified view of that thing, you actually realise the policy is complicated or the thing doesn’t make sense, because the policy is complicated. 

Hopefully, that is… Showing them that is the start of a process of thinking: “How can we simplify this, because this is confusing users and this is making work for us, as government, it’s making work for them to try and understand something which should just be simple.”

 

Sam Dub:  


That was really one of the early learnings of this, was that we needed to get the policymakers in the room for those workshops, because often there can be a process where our content designers do a bunch of work and then they pass it over to policy people. Some context is lost there. If you’ve got the policymakers in the room from the start, that’s another kind of collaboration. It’s different departments and it’s different disciplines being there to inform the process.

 

Laura Stevens:


These ‘Step by Steps’ have also been very helpful to the voice assistant work, as well, haven’t they?

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes. This is part of a broader strategy. We sometimes talk about GOV.UK now… Or trying to make GOV.UK understandable to humans and understandable to machines. I sometimes wonder, when we say that, what people are imagining, like some kind of robot overlords.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


Exactly.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Our new user. 

 

Sam Dub:


To be clear, to clear this up on the GDS podcast, not for the robot overlords, one example of what we mean by that is so that our content is understandable to search engines. If you do a search for becoming a driving instructor or learning to drive a car, from a search engine on mobile – actually, this is something that’s gone live in the last month – they’re able to see the… The search engine is able to look at the structure of our content. 

You get, like, this little carousel of steps that appears that you can swipe through. You can jump to: “I’m at step 3 of ‘Learning to Drive’,” like, “I’ve got my provisional licence, so now I’m studying for my test, so I can jump to that.” That’s powered by some mark-up that we’ve added to our ‘Step by Steps’ that makes them easier for machines to read. It’s the same mark-up that powers search that can also power voice assistance, so you can query those ‘Step by Steps’ – or the content within those ‘Step by Steps’ – in the same way.

 

Laura Stevens:


I’ve also seen a figure floating round that there are, like, 400 services you want to do this to. Is that how many, or is it literally just-?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


That’s that finger in the air. I think that’s based off of the amount of mainstream guidance we have, which is it covers the really major, far-reaching government services, but, because ‘Step by Step’ navigation can work across all content on GOV.UK, it means that even beyond those 400, if there are departments who are sitting in some really niche area of government, they can still start using this pattern for something that [might]… Maybe it only has 200 users a year, but they can still start thinking about it and piecing their journey together in the depths of Whitehall content, as well. There’s potentially way more than 400, but that covers some of the really key services that we know we would like to build.

 

Laura Stevens:


What sort of journeys are definitely not ‘Step by Steps’? Like, when you’re thinking, if you’re listening and you’re working on a service, what would be not suitable?

 

Sam Dub:


This is a crude indicator of it, it’s generally stuff you need to do in more than one sitting, like you can’t learn to drive or get married in one web session. It’s going to take a bit longer.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


One day. I think you can in Estonia, probably.

 

Sam Dub:


It will generally be something where you’ve got to read a bit of GOV.UK, go and do a thing in the real world, come back, and then read or do something else. That’s a, kind of, gut-feel indicator of when some navigation that’s going to help people join up those activities is going to help.

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

When I think about the ‘Step by Steps’ I want to build, one of the ones I really wanted to do was what to do when someone dies, because it is these high-emotion, really difficult times of life when the last thing you want to be doing is thinking about government admin. I know they’re a bit depressing, but that’s what motivates me, is to take the pressure off people at those horrible times and make life a little bit easier. 

I think other ‘Step by Steps’ I would love to build would be, like, helping people who are out of work, and tying together all the services and the suite of things in that space that could support them in that time of life, or other things like that. That’s where we can add, I think, the most value.

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s those moments in life where you really value somebody saying, like, “You just do this, do this, do this, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, that’s what motivates us, I think.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Totally, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Not adding unnecessary stress or pressure on a highly emotional situation.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Yes. Who wants to think about government when you’ve got all that other stuff on your plate? No-one.

I think it’s about making government much more invisible. Ultimately, people don’t want to think about that. They want to get on with their lives.

 

Laura Stevens:


“Thank you” to Kate, and, “Thank you” to Sam today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify, and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on Podbean. Thank you very much again.

 

Sam Dub:  


Thank you.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Thanks for having us.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

May 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the GDS podcast, senior writer Sarah Stewart talks to Chantal Donaldson-Foyer, Head of Product and Warren Smith, Programme Director about the Global Digital Marketplace. The trio discuss how the Global Digital Marketplace is helping to tackle corruption, a $2.6 trillion problem.

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello, and welcome to the GDS Podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, I’m a senior writer at the Government Digital Service. I’m in the studio today with two aficionados in the world of government procurement, Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith. Chantal, you’re head of product for the Global Digital Marketplace and Warren, you are the programme director for the Global Digital Marketplace. Welcome to you both.

 

Chantal Donaldson-Foyer: Thank you.

 

Warren Smith: Thank you very much.

 

Sarah: So just to start off, could you tell me a little bit more about your roles, what exactly you do?

 

Chantal: All right. So as head of product of the Global Digital Marketplace, I look after the programme as a whole in terms of our offering and what we’re going to do with the country. So we’ve got teams who are looking after each region and I help the product managers for each of these regions build up their offer and actually deliver it.

 

Sarah: Cool, Warren?

 

Warren: So, I have the easy job, I set the direction, the vision and make sure that we have the senior stakeholder relationships maintained in our partner countries, and that includes with the FCO as well.

 

Sarah: Now, government procurement enthusiasts will know what the Digital Marketplace is – but for those who don’t I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick recap before we move onto talk about your international work. So what is the Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Digital Marketplace is a platform that is available to all of the UK public sector to enable them to buy digital data and technology products and services in support of government transformation.

 

Sarah: And we do that along with the Crown Commercial Service?

 

Warren: Yes, we do, they’re a key partner organisation for us in the Cabinet Office.

 

Sarah: Now, before the pair of you worked on the Global Digital Marketplace you were also on the Digital Marketplace.

 

Warren: Correct.

 

Sarah: I did describe you as aficionados earlier, so I’m going to put this claim to the test, and enrich our listeners understanding, and try and make government procurement even more interesting, with a quiz.

 

Warren: Love it.

 

Sarah: You’re going head-to-head.

 

Chantal: No pressure.

 

Sarah: No pressure. Okay, so this is on the Digital Marketplace. What happens when you open up the procurement market to suppliers of all sizes rather than just big tech companies? I’ve a list of four things that you could possibly pick from.

 

Warren: Oh, it’s multiple choice.

 

Chantal: Okay, yes.

 

Sarah: It’s multiple choice.

 

Warren: You encourage a more diverse supply chain to be involved.

 

Sarah: That’s on my list. Okay, well done.

 

Chantal: You get better value for money.

 

Sarah: That’s correct. It’s happening even in the room as we speak. There’s the air of…

 

Warren: Anticipation? (Laughter)

 

Sarah: I was going for competition. The increasing competition. And also the locations are more diverse.

 

Warren: Of course. Yes.

 

Sarah: Okay, this might be slightly harder. Second question, what was the Digital Marketplace’s total sales figure at the end of March?

 

Warren: £5.7 billion.

 

Sarah: Wow, correct. Okay, can you tell me what is the government’s aspirational target figure for SME spend?

 

Chantal: The target figure is £1 in every £3 to be spent with SME.

 

Sarah: By which date? Bonus question.

 

Warren: 2022.

 

Sarah: Yes.

 

Sarah: Which government launched its own digital marketplace in record time by working with us and using our open source code?

 

Chantal: Australia.

 

Sarah: Correct.

 

Chantal: Yes.

 

Sarah: The bonus question, how many weeks did Australia take to launch its own digital marketplace?

 

Warren: Six.

 

Chantal: Five?

 

Sarah: Five is the correct answer

 

Warren: 5 weeks, good on them.

 

Sarah: I have to say, yes, very good, good job. I’ve got to say, it’s a relief between the pair of you, you both got them right. So I think we’re all up to speed on the digital marketplace, so let’s go global. What is the Global Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Global Digital Marketplace is a programme that’s working in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed to help overseas governments in emerging economies to tackle corruption by transforming their procurement of digital data and technology products and services.

 

Sarah: How did that come about?

 

Warren: It was mainly following the summit that took place in 2016. Where it was felt that there was an opportunity to apply the same approaches that we’ve taken in the UK to open up markets to open up procurement and make it more transparent as a way of helping to tackle closed markets, closed processes, and more opaque processes that are often the breeding ground for corruption so that was really the sort of genesis of the concept that became the Global Digital Marketplace programme.

 

Sarah: The corruption angle is very interesting,how in practical terms is this corruption happening?

 

Warren: So it’s a good question. I think when considering corruption you have to look at the whole system in which corruption is taking place. On the one end you’ve got the very obvious corruption which is where individuals are for personal gain misappropriating public funds, but I think you also have to look on the opposite end of the spectrum where weaknesses within the system could lead to corrupt practices  to take place. So perhaps inefficiency and effectiveness within government processes or the systems, or opacity within those processes, a lack of transparency, these are all opportunities for reform and are often the breeding ground for where the corruption can start to manifest.

I think certainly the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is focusing on designing out opportunities for corruption to take place and focusing on the people involved so that we can help to build capability and increase integrity.

 

Sarah: We spend $9.5 trillion a year, so that’s global government procurement spend, and that’s not just IT, and of that number 2.6 trillion, which is nearly 30%, is lost through bribery or corruption.

 

Warren: Yes.

 

Sarah: So it’s a huge thing that you’re trying to tackle here. How exactly does it work, how did you begin this process?

 

Warren:  So we first engaged with a range of governments that were priority countries for the FCO. This is after we got the endorsement and the backing to actually take this approach. It all really starts by having the conversations with the governments and the supply chains and civil society organisations within those countries to understand what are the barriers, what are the challenges, and equally what are the opportunities for how we can work together.

We’re not claiming that we’ve solved the problem by any means in the UK but we’ve made a start, and an important start, in showing that a different way of thinking and working in – to tackle procurement is – it is possible. We also look to opportunities to how we can learn from other governments as well as sharing what we’ve been able to achieve in the UK.

 

Sarah: I’m really interested in the diplomatic angle here, because – say for example your friend is singing very, very badly, you might not want to tell them directly they’re singing very, very badly but it’s in everyone’s interest for them to get better. How do you approach governments, like what’s your first step, and do you take a different approach for every country, do you go and meet them?

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s a really important point, is not to take a standard one size fits all approach, you have to tailor your engagement approach depending on the context, and, yes, I’ve got loads of friends who are terrible singers-

 

Sarah:  Even in a band?

 

Warren: I know, yes, myself included, that’s why I’m never on the vocals. So very quickly, even though the kind of the starting point for the conversation is around tackling corruption and procurement reform, very quickly the conversations turn to government transformation and public service transformation and greater openness and transparency of government.

So I think it’s really important to see the antithesis of the negative and focus on the positive, because that’s very much where the impact and the outcomes that we want to achieve are associated. Yes, that’s how we shift the conversation to one of the future positive.

 

Sarah: And so for the record, who, which countries are we dealing with?

 

Chantal: All right, so we are currently in five countries, so that’s in Latin America, Mexico and Columbia and South Africa in Southern Africa and Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia.

 

Sarah: What about the discovery work, so how does that kick off?

 

Chantal: So actually to do the discovery we engaged with the UK supply chain to help us conduct all of the research that was necessary for us to define what the delivery of the programme was going to be. So we worked with four partners who come with us to the country and try and understand what are the opportunities that exist, what current best practices or great examples we could kind of build and grow further, and also what the challenges were in the countries to understand where we could add value and where we could work together, share our experience, see whether that can help them, or not.

 

Sarah: So can you tell me some of the things that came out of that early stage discussion work with the suppliers? What kinds of things were they saying about what they wanted?

 

Chantal: Each of the suppliers had a different area of expertise, and an area that they were looking at in countries across all five countries, and including some of our team and some people from GDS came along to the discovery. So actually over the last five weeks, four weeks, we’ve been working together in workshops to define what we have found, because actually we think that by bringing together all our findings we can come up with a better rationale rather than everyone working on their own, so we’re just currently formulating what our findings are.

I think there are several themes that come out, but overall the Global Digital Marketplace is looking at things beyond just the digital marketplace, so it’s all its associated reforms, looking at the standards and assurance process before contracts are awarded, the spend control process, then how procurements are designed, how contracts are designed, then the assurance of the delivery itself, how data underpins all of that, as well as the capabilities that are available in countries, and so together we’ve reviewed all of that and pretty much in all countries found opportunities at each of these levels I think, and in terms of transparency, an exciting part of that is looking at how we could help these countries share more of their data in the open contracting data standard.

 

Sarah:How were those countries identified in the first place?

 

Warren: So we were provided with a long list of potential partner countries by the FCO, which are priority countries for them in terms of anti-corruption. It was necessary for us to prioritise out of that long list, because we’re a small team to begin with, so we used a range of publicly available indexes to give us a general measure of complexity. Things like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and various others from, like, the OECD and such like, so that gave us a, yes, an overall score which enabled us to put countries into two different tiers, so we focused on the tier one countries effectively.

Why can't the UK government just write a how-to guide and provide some open source code and let a government get on with it?

Chantal: I think part of what we’re trying to do as well is show our way of working, so bringing user-centred design principles as well as our agile ways of working into our delivery so that we can share that with partner countries live, and so that they can really experience it and feel it, rather than just reading something, some nice guidance and some stats about how it makes things better, but actually being there, feeling it, engaging with the users directly is so powerful that no guide would be able to match that kind of experience, and I think that’s why we wanted our delivery to be very much implementation focused because that’s the best way to learn.

 

Warren: I think just building on that, I mean, that’s exactly what we did for Australia as a bit of an experiment in 2016. They could have just come in and taken the code but actually it was the combination of open source code and technical assistance from UK government, in terms of GDS, sending some people from the team to spend the time with them to take the code and to implement, I think that’s what – it was the combination of those things which led to their delivery in just five weeks.

 

Sarah: So how do you work with five countries, like what does your month look like, where are you touch points, how do you meet, how do you collaborate?

 

Chantal: Well, it’s quite hard, especially when you look at it on a map and think about just the time zone problem, it’s a massive challenge for our team, but it’s also really exciting because we get to work together with the overseas Embassies and High Commissions who support us on the ground. Yes, so we do visits every few months in country and then use other tools to be able to talk, stay close.

Warren: We use Slack we use Hang Outs, so even though we are geographically distant and time zone presents a challenge it’s still possible to have a working relationship with a highly distributed team, I think, yes.

 

Sarah: I’d like to talk a little bit about MOUs, Memorandums of Understanding. You’ve just signed some, tell me about those.

 

Warren: Yes, at the beginning of March, Kevin, our director general, signed three MOUs with some not for profit organisations to support Global Digital Marketplace. That’s really exciting. It’s been some time in the making but we’ve got there so, yes, each of those organisations are recognised globally for their leadership, for their skills, for their experience and capabilities, all of which support the strategic direction of Global Digital Marketplace. So

 

Warren: The first is the Organisation for International Economic Relations, or the OIER Which is also the organisation that’s behind an initiative called ‘United Smart Cities’.

 

Sarah: Where are they based?

 

Warren:  Vienna. The second is the Open Contracting Partnership, or OCP, and the third is the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management, or the IACCM. The OIER and United Smart Cities are focused on implementing information communication and technologies to support the delivery of sustainable smart cities. They are active across the globe in a number of cities and they are closely linked to a number of United Nations agencies as well.

The Open Contracting Partnership is an organisation that’s spun out from the World Bank and they developed the open contracting data standard. They are huge advocates and great campaigners for greater transparency in public procurement, and the Open Contracting Data Standard , or the OCDS, is a key element of the Global Digital Marketplace programme delivery, and the third, the IACCM, is a globally recognised organisation that’s focused on building capability and capacity in commercial and contracting.

 

Sarah: What does their signing the MOU mean in real terms?

 

Warren: It gives us the ability to align on common areas of interest. It gives us the ability to identify countries where we have a common interest in and where we’re already engaging, and it also gives us the ability to bring together those – the skill sets of the different organisations and thinking about the collective rather than the individual.

We have a workshop planned in a couple of weeks’ time in Vienna where we bring together all of the organisations, and we look forward to the next 12, 18 months and identifying those opportunities for collaborative delivery. It’s really important that we look at the tangible delivery opportunities that can draw on the individual capabilities of each organisation.

 

Sarah: Where are you in the process now, you’re collecting feedback from the discoveries?

 

Chantal: Currently we are analysing still the findings from - well, we’re towards the end of that, but we’ve done the trips to the five countries, we’ve brought together all the teams that have been doing that, so both client and GDS, and we’ve brought together the findings and now we’re developing the recommendation. This is going to be a kind of a long list, that we’re going back into countries to present and discuss and shape that together with our key stakeholders there what the next phase of delivery is going to look like.

Our next phase is our alpha phase where we want to pilot different types of approaches, so we’re just trying to see what will that exactly look like and also how does that fit in with what the stakeholders in each country want to achieve, and matching that is our next step

 

Sarah: So are you working with just national governments or sub-national governments?

 

Warren: Both, yes.

 

Sarah: How does your approach differ

 

Warren: The engagement approach is consistent. I think the challenges faced are different. In very much consistent with the UK sub-national, are closest to frontline service delivery, so either city or municipality level, and national obviously is trying to take a national view on what to do.

What we’re trying to do is transcend those organisational boundaries, and actually there is a level between that which might be, say, states in which obviously there are multiple cities or districts, so it’s looking at, okay, what are the needs of each of the different levels of government, where are the challenges, and what are the opportunities that we can help to bring together coordination between national efforts and sub-national efforts on the ground.

 

Sarah: Are you on a timer here? What are your target delivery dates?

 

Warren: Ultimately we’re funded until 2022, which is in line with the UK’s anti- corruption strategy, so that’s another 3 years on that current funding envelope, and while we’re taking the long view we’re looking at how we can then break that down into the next 6, 12, 18 months, and always have a rolling view of what our activities are likely to be notching through that time period.

 

Sarah: Will you identify any other places to work?

 

Sarah: Because I saw a map.

 

Warren: There’s always a map.

 

Sarah: I've seen a map and they had some some rather exotic locations, but I saw Bristol.

 

Warren: I wanted to, in that map, I wanted to call out a couple of UK cities. The list to call out is too long on that small map, but initiatives like the Local Digital Declaration and leading local government organisations who are really showing the way in terms of what digital transformation can look like at a local level. Calling those out on the map gives us the ability to bring together stakeholders who are trying to do the same thing in different countries around the world.

So, for example, the profile of Bristol might be very close to a city in Indonesia where they have a similar demographic or they have a similar set of challenges, there could be value in bringing those stakeholders together to share information, share technologies, share approaches, share lessons learned so that everybody can benefit from one another. That’s certainly a really key part of what we’re trying to do, is bring together and form a global community of reformers where procurement transformation is the heart of their digital transformation as well.

 

Sarah: It’s a bit like town twinning for the digital age.

 

Warren: Funny you should say that because that’s exactly how… Yes, digital twins.

 

Chantal: I would add also that we’re seeing really interesting initiatives in some of our partner countries and we’d like to explore the idea of exchanging experiences between them, so it’s not just a UK to another country exchange but really this community is self-organised and has people talking all over the world. That’s the ambition at least.

 

Warren: Absolutely, and it’s multi-stakeholder, it’s multi-directional, so it’s not about, as you say Chantal, it’s not UK pushing out to others, it’s actually this we’ve got a lot to learn from other governments, the flow of information and expertise should be multi-directional and, yes, when you start connecting different regions and governments in those regions , and the UK is kind of convening that, I think that presents some really interesting opportunities.

Yes, so while we’re focused on the Global Digital Marketplace programme as funded by the FCO with an anti-corruption focus, there’s certainly an opportunity to look beyond that and maybe that’s the next phase of our work.

 

Sarah: So what kinds of initiatives have piqued your interests across the globe?

 

Chantal: think the most exciting initiative I came across was probably in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where we saw that they’ve done some incredible work at mapping the city and mapping different services, so it’s city services across the city so that you could see what was happening where, and also the town planning so this could inform their future policies and interventions, which was just really, really remarkable.

 

Warren: A couple that I have seen. For example, in Malaysia, Selangor State, they have a very bold ambition to be the smartest state in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations by, I think 2026. That’s all about embracing digital civic participation to deliver transform public services, so their Smart Selangor Delivery Unit is one of our key stakeholders in Malaysia. Equally, in Indonesia, West Java province, so the current governor of West Java was the former mayor of Bandung City, Ridwan Kamil, so he’s a very forward thinking, senior leader who understands the role of digital and technology in delivering transformed public services. Again, they’re likely to be a key partner for us.

 

Chantal:Yes, we’ve seen the Colombian procurement body Colombia Compra Eficiente, they’ve published a whole bunch of their data in the Open Contracting Data Standard quite recently so that’s been a really fantastic initiative we’ve seen.

 

Warren: Equally, Mexico are very forward in terms of their embracing Open Contracting Data Standard.

 

Sarah: That’s quite a lot.

 

Warren: Yes, so this is I think what’s exciting, it’s not only understanding the opportunities for what we can do together in a country, it’s what we can learn from other countries where they’ve perhaps been a step or two ahead of the UK.

Chantal: An example in South Africa is that they have a central supplier database, which was developed quite a few years ago, but is actually a really good example of how having data in one place is actually incredibly powerful. Different ministries are essentially able to draw from that to be able to sense check the suppliers that are bidding for their procurements so that’s been a very impressive piece of work we’ve seen.

 

Sarah: In your Indonesian example you touched on leadership, how much of your work is around leadership and culture?

 

Warren: I think that’s absolutely integral to all of it. We have been identifying who are our key stakeholders to lead and sponsor, but also how do we ensure that when we’re working together that they have that vision and the direction and they’re able to bring their teams along with them? There was an article published I think just last week actually in GovInsider talking about the CIO for Malaysia, and she’s fantastic, she’s visited GDS at least once, I think a couple of times, and so when we were presenting to her actually the tables turned quite quickly and she was basically presenting to us about how they’re using GDS standards and approaches as their benchmark for how to deliver their transformation. It makes for a very engaging and compelling conversation when the leaders within the countries are basically saying we want to align around these kinds of principles and practices which then means that we’ve got a really solid foundation for a good conversation and delivery.

 

Sarah: Is it possible to identify any quick wins against corruption? Is it a case of just making contracts really, really simple and then you can, you know, that’s the first step in winning the battle?

 

Chantal: I like that making contracts simple as a quick win, because contracts are certainly a very difficult challenge I think generally in the world of procurement. I think there isn’t really a quick win in tackling something as systemic as corruption, but I think there is something around starting small and choosing a very specific area in a location, in a sub-national government for example, and trying to build that out. Showing how that works, and also building the buy-in of stakeholders across the board that this approach can work. I think it’s not really about quick wins, more about choosing – starting small, testing it out, iterating it and growing it in the long term.

 

Warren: I think that relates also to your question around culture, because the ingrained systemic issues of corruption can often be quite an overwhelming thing to tackle, by demonstrating, as Chantal says, that it is possible to take a different approach by starting small, demonstrating a success, building trust and building confidence and bringing people along with you on that journey and then scaling from there and I think it’s hugely satisfying when you can see the delight in a stakeholder or the users, to see, “Oh my goodness, change is possible,” and people are really looking for that change. So, yes, it’s that approach of incremental and iterative and then scaling from there I think is absolutely key.

 

Sarah:The Global Digital Marketplace is a partnership between GDS and the Foreign Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who does what?

 

Warren: GDS is responsible for the delivery of the programme. FCO, they’re responsible for a broader overarching programme which is called the ‘Global Anti-corruption Programme’. That contains a number of activities of which the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is one. They’re managing quite a diverse portfolio of activities that involve a number of other government departments, some multilateral organisations like the OECD and the UN are involved as well. Our focus and our responsibility is on delivering against the objections that we’ve set which will help to achieve the more broader objectives of the FCO’s Global Anti-corruption Programme.

 

Sarah: Will we continue to engage with suppliers going forward, and if so how?

 

Warren: Absolutely. In exactly the same way as we have done in the UK, the supply chain is an absolutely critical element for our transformation. We would mirror that approach in our engagements, particularly as we move beyond discovery and transition  into alpha we will be reengaging with our supply chain partners in the UK to share the opportunities for how they could work with us to support Global Digital Marketplace delivery over the next 12 to 18 months.

 

Sarah: What will be keeping you busy in the short term?

 

Chantal: What’s keeping us busy is the trips to our partner countries because we’re, as I mentioned earlier, going there to present what we think might be good activities for the next stage and discussing and shaping that with them, so over the next two, three months we’re going to go over different parts of the team, but I think it’s that coordination of who’s going out when that’s currently keeping us busy, and then actually being in country and engaging and running workshops, presenting our findings, that’s really what’s going to be the next, yes, the next phase.

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s not without its complexity because we are engaging with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, the decision makers in the country, the people that we want to partner with in order to support our delivery, and that includes domestic supply chain in country as well as civil society organisations.Trying to line up the right people to gain their buy-in and their support for our plan going forward is absolutely critical. We have to be respectful of their availability so, yes, that’s going to be a diary challenge for us all.

 

Sarah: So you’ve been here since nearly the beginning of GDS’ creation, could you have imagined that the Digital Marketplace would be global?

 

Warren: No, certainly not at the beginning. I think it goes back to – it absolutely goes back to Chantal’s point of the importance and the power of starting small, iterating and then scaling those approaches, which is effectively what we’ve – what we’re doing now, and the fact that the digital marketplace is now being seen by the Crown Commercial Service as a key enabler for their transformation I think is testament to the fact that the successes of what we’ve seen through the Digital Marketplace so far have been recognised, and now we can build upon those things from a domestic UK perspective, and equally the same goes for overseas with the Global Digital Marketplace programme. Yes, it certainly wasn’t the anticipation from day one but nice to see that evolution, yeah.

 

Sarah: Can you tell me about the makeup of the Global Digital Marketplace team, who have you got in there?

 

Chantal: So the Global Digital Marketplace team is growing right now, so we’ve been doing a whole bunch of hiring in the last couple of months and are still in the process of doing that. I’ll talk about what our finished team will look like, but essentially so we’re going to have a product and delivery duo looking after a region, so three, we’ve got three regions, and then we’ve got subject matter expertise on digital and data and technology skills and capabilities, commercial and commissioning, as well as-

 

Warren: Standards assurance.

 

Chantal: Standards and assurance. Then we’ve got also, in our different partner countries, we’ve got delivery support in each of the Embassies or High Commissions who are supporting the delivery on the ground

 

Warren: So that shape is suited to our activity over the next kind of 12, 18 months, isn’t it? We would naturally look to shape and reshape the team if we need to, but certainly the roles that you’ve articulated, Chantal, those are our core civil servant delivery focused roles that we’ve been putting in place.

 

Chantal: Yes, and I would also add to that. We’ve been supported by different teams in GDS as well, so the standards and assurance team have supported us on our discovery as well as the digital data and technology capabilities team. They’ve been crucial at shaping what our discoveries were like and the kinds of things we were investigating, and some of which have – some of who have also joined us on our discovery trips.

 

Sarah: Where can people find out more about your work?

 

Warren: The GDS blog. Yes, certainly the GDS social media channels. We would like to be regularly talking about the work that we’re doing, being open about the work, and once we’ve had an opportunity to share discovery, insights and propositions with our stakeholders in country we’d like to be able to talk about that openly as well, so keep your eye out for that.

 

Sarah: Excellent. Well thank you so much for joining me on the GDS podcast, it’s been a pleasure to learn more about the work that you’re doing

 

Warren: Thank you for having us.

 

Chantal: Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

April 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast, we speak to GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington about his time at the organisation and his career so far.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

So welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS.

For this episode I’m in the slightly unusual position of interviewing my boss, or the boss of the organisation I work for. It’s GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington. Kevin, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you for inviting me Angus.

Angus Montgomery:

So Kevin, I’d like to talk to you today about your time in GDS. So you’ve been here for, getting on for three years I think, and your priorities for GDS as we enter the new financial year and what’s coming up over the next year.

But before we get onto all of that, I’d like to talk to you a bit about your time before GDS and before government, because you’ve been a technologist, or involved in digital and technology for your entire career, and you’ve got quite a storied career before you joined GDS.

 

I think first of all, as I understand, you studied computer science and you have a master’s in artificial intelligence, so what first led you to that subject matter, to wanting to study technology and then develop a career in it?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I went to a boys grammar school, well rather dare I say, a stuffy traditional boys grammar school, where you really had a choice of doing the arts or the sciences, so I did the sciences - maths, physics, chemistry and luckily, a bit on the side, general studies.

And I was always fascinated in two areas beyond that, which were computer science and astrophysics. And oddly, at the time, both were equally as bonkers because I had never seen a computer, none of us had. No boy from my school had ever gone on to study computer science, so when I decided that was what I was going to do, I was the first boy ever from my school to study computer science, having never seen a computer [0.01.58].

Angus Montgomery:

If, at the risk of asking a very personal question, and you can answer in general time, what sort of general time are we talking about?

Kevin Cunnington:

1979.

Angus Montgomery:

Right. Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes, I went ‘79 - ‘82.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

So if you’re familiar with the history of computer science, we’d just about invented the BBC Micro in ‘79. But the first real personal computer, the IBM XT80, XT, came out in ‘81. So you know, nobody had ever seen a personal computer.

They existed only as mainframes really in large regional centres that none of us had ever seen. So taking a punt, and doing a degree based on something I’d never seen before, seemed like quite an odd option really. But it’s worked out ok I’d have to say.

Angus Montgomery:

And your master’s as well, I presume at the same...at this sort of time, artificial intelligence was in the very early stages of our understanding. What was it that drew you to that and what was the kind of, what was going on in artificial intelligence then and is it still relevant to what we’re talking about today?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, it was very different then. So you’re right to say, there was very little work in A.I. back in ‘83 when I did my second degree. And we just had this report called the Lighthill report which said, largely it was rubbish and it’ll never work.

So my timing wasn’t perfect but my interest in A.I and computing has always been with the effect on people really and how it kind of works, not necessarily the programming, but the effect of computing - although I do love programming as well. But it was different then, ‘cause we actually used to programme A.I systems by hand.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

In these really obscure languages like Prolog and Lisp, which are based on quite complicated mathematical constructs oddly enough, the last thing you’d expect to be quite natural. And so I spent a whole raft of my master’s degree programming Prolog and Lisp on things like chess playing. My thesis was around, kind of flexible airport selection. So I built this system that learnt that if you couldn’t go to that airport which was your favourite, then you’d most likely pick the next one, and therefore we could offer that as a potential option in the first place.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So yeah, quite ahead of its time really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned, I mean obviously you were involved in writing programming back then, is that something you still do today when you have time or are still involved in?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, because when I started out in programming in the traditional languages like Pascal and C, and I actually come past programming Codebar oddly enough, but my passion was always Prolog and Lisp, and since they’re no longer really around, I just, you know, wouldn’t have the skill set to programme in Java or Ruby nowadays, so I’ve not done any for years really

Angus Montgomery:

But it’s still there, still there, the skills I’m sure.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think I’d like to go back to it when I retire kind of thing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, go back to early ‘80s artificial intelligence. And then, so after studying you worked for PWC [Pricewaterhouse Coopers], and developed, or pioneered their use of Agile methodology.

Can you tell me a bit more about sort of, again, what Agile methodology was like, and presumably this was sort of mid to late ‘80s, and what was Agile like back then and how does that relate to what we’re doing now and how we use Agile?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think the kind of crystallising example is I got sent to this regional city in England to help a large insurer try to automate the process of life insurance, underwriting for life insurance. And people had had a go at that in the past and failed miserably because it’s quite complicated. And I was the first person to try it using A.I techniques and it worked, first time in the world it ever worked, and we came out with a programme that could underwrite life insurance quite comprehensively.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

And it was really...so A.I was like user researchers now.

Angus Montgomery:

Right, yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

You used to sit down with people, we used to actually video the experts doing their job and then we used to interactively programme up what they’d told us and we iterated that over time, so very much like Agile is today, lots of user research, lots of interaction, lots of feedback, lots of intelligent challenge.

And then in, I think it was ‘92, PWC shipped me off to their, what they called, their technology centre in California in Menlo Park, to write down everything I’d learnt about doing A.I using Agile. And this I duly did, it took me six months to deposit the whole contents of my mind onto a book, which was actually quite big, but that then became PWC’s global methodology for developing expert systems, A.I systems, using Agile.

And it was broadly what you’d expect to see today. You know we said prototypes are important, you need to understand the scope of what you’re doing, you need to test and learn, you need to do user research and it’s all not changed very much if we’re being brutally honest over the, what’s that, 25 years.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, well it works, so yeah, why change it? And your background, so as well as working at PWC, you worked for various other sort of large organisations, so Vodafone, Goldman Sachs.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

And it covers, your background kind of covers large organisations as well as startups and entrepreneurial work, so you’ve got a, quite a varied kind of work history before you came to the public sector. How do you use that experience in your current role in government and kind of, what are the similarities and differences between that and what you do know?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think you know, my kind of, original company was PWC, which was a management consultancy. And apparently today, PWC run the best kind of, fast track scheme in the UK, and they probably in fairness to them, did then. And it was really helpful because as a scientist, my ability to write and present and critique, you know, was that of a scientist. So I was taught how to present, I was taught how to write, I was told how to do analysis and that, it turned out to be a really great start in life. And I spent that, broadly best part of a decade, doing A.I systems.

And as people know, in the ‘90s when greed was good and lunch was for wimps, I sold out and went to work for Goldman Sachs in New York running their trading systems. Which when you say it that way sounds slightly mad but all trading systems are written using Agile. So the fact that I knew how to do Agile at scale and quite quickly and quite well, turned out to be quite a big advantage for them and for me.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah definitely.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then as you say, I had a spell as an entrepreneur. Having been a successful entrepreneur originally, I made quite a bit of money and most people know I lost 13 million quid on a venture, which I do say to people, if you meet my wife, please don’t mention it ‘cause she has stopped mentioning it now.

But at the time obviously it was quite traumatic. And then I went back to work for Vodafone as their Global Head of Digital before joining the Civil Service about five years ago now.

Angus Montgomery:

So you joined, so your first role in the Civil Service was with DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] as Director General of Business Transformation, that’s correct I think.

Kevin Cunnington:

It was.

Angus Montgomery:

Can you tell me a bit more about that role and what you were responsible for and what you were doing?

Kevin Cunnington:

So back in the day it was called the Director General for Digital Transformation and my job was really twofold. The overarching part of the job was, how to transform DWP to be fit for digital and you know, as we know, we did that via the Academies, and all the rich picture work that we did in creating a vision. But the really tangible part of my work was helping to recruit, train the digital teams for the big programmes like Universal Credit back in the day. And that’s broadly what I spent the first two and a half years of my Civil Service life doing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, so it’s kind of, bringing people in and building capability. Those, those two things across the department.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’ll tell you, the big thing we did was bring in the Academies. Which was not a new idea, it was an idea that we’d used in Vodafone. But in Vodafone, we’d used it to train largely graduates in digital, because even Vodafone couldn’t get ahold of enough graduates.

In the Civil Service when we first tried it, we blatantly took the idea and reimplemented it and I wasn’t sure whether it would work, and this would be one of the big positives and learnings for me that, we’d tried it on graduates, in the Civil Service we were trying it on older people like myself, and it was at all clear to me that older people would respond to being re-trained in digital. But the reality was they loved it because it gave them a whole new lease of life, it made them feel really modern and updated, and they really warmed to it.

And it’s been, some of the big successes, we’ve had people put off their retirement because having been re-trained, they enjoyed it so much, they want to carry on working. Which was, you know, you’d never believe that was true but they’ve been a massive success. We’ve trained 10,000 people now in the Academies over the five years.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. And when they first started five years ago, was it in DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, 24 Feb 2014.

Angus Montgomery:

Even got the date.

Kevin Cunnington:

It’s my birthday Angus, so it’s hard to forget.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh right, wow. Very fortuitous. And so that, and again the Academy, the idea of that is upskilling people with potentially no digital capability, or no digital knowledge whatsoever and kind of giving them the skills and potential for a new career.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. When I first joined DWP, we were kind of in that twilight of 2013 in the Civil Service. And I was told DWP, when I think about this now and I was reminiscing the other day, I must have been incredibly controversial because DWP told me they got 300 experts in digital. And after the first few days, I hadn’t met one so I was beginning to get a bit suspicious, so I wrote down as a word cloud, the 50 terms you really need to understand to understand digital and particularly if you like, the GDS version with discovery, alpha and beta. And challenged the whole of the organisation if someone could get 50 like I could, then I would absolutely consider them an expert, and that’s fair enough. And a lot of people came forward and the highest score was 20.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh really? Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah. And you realise actually, we probably are kidding ourselves relative to industry. We’re not where we think we need to be. And at that point, that’s how we kind of came to the academy system. For me, it was always better to retrain our folk even if that was a gamble in the way we described earlier than it was to kind of, you know, put them to one side and hire a whole set of new people who aren’t part of the Civil Service culture. But, and this again is a really true story. When we first trained people, and then put them back into their departments and their host building, people used to say to them, ‘we don’t do it like that around here Kevin’.

So in the end I got this entire building, bit like we are here today, in Leeds. And we commondered the first floor, the ground floor, and we used that to train people in the Academy. Then we commandeered the next two floors for people to go off and do digital programmes. So they were entirely sequestrated from the rest of the business because, if they were put in the business, we had this terrific organ rejection.

And you think about that now, and you think that must have been incredibly controversial that I set up a building to incubate digital.

Angus Montgomery:

To develop this new way of thinking.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah but it’s all true and you know I, again I was reminiscing the other day, I even stopped people who weren’t qualified from going through the Academy from doing digital for a while.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because we had a number of people who thought they knew, you know ‘cause of the 300 expert thing again, thought they knew what they were doing and they didn’t, so I stopped them and made them get completely trained in the Academy, then I let them crack on.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And were you seeing, so when people were being trained in the Academy and then going back into DWP and sort of, after this sequestering, were you seeing then the change in the department or the capability building?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it took, so in DWP over the first 3 years, I think we trained 5,000 people. Because, at peak, we were training 3000 people a year. And it was only through you know, mass re-education if you like, or mass education, that we got to a point where, you know these people who knew about digital weren’t strange folk anymore. They were more you know, the core fabric of the business.

And it still is a fact that 80% of the people who were trained in the Academies are really around awareness of digital, not practitioners for digital, only about ⅕ of the people go on to be practitioners. But the majority of the effort was just stopping people from being worried about it or thinking it was alien or thinking it was different. And eventually critical mass won and we thought digital was part of our DNA, and if you went into DWP today, you’d never consider doing something that wasn’t digital, you would genuinely be digital by default.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. So it was a real culture shift.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, exactly.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And obviously while you were at DWP, GDS had been around for 2 or 3 years beforehand. What was your kind of relationship with GDS and how were you working with them when you were at DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

So, GDS invented a construct which, I still think to this day is a really good idea, called Digital Leaders. And it was essentially getting all the heads of digital together on a monthly basis, chaired by GDS. And I was part of that. So I was always part of the kind of family. DWP did have, occasionally, some GDS folk working with us on some of the programmes but relatively small numbers.

I think it wasn’t until about 2015, that the chair of the Digital Leaders changed to be Chris Ferguson and myself. We completely changed the dynamic to say it wasn’t just about the centre but the centre in partnership with a big department, and from there I had a lot more engagement with GDS. Obviously prior to arriving here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

I think it was August/September 2016 when you joined.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it was. Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

You joined as the first Director General of GDS, and tell me about when you joined, what were your sort of, first impressions. I mean obviously you knew the organisation well, you’d been working very closely with it but actually sort of, coming in the door and sort of, becoming part of GDS, what were your impressions of it?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh it was definitely quite different to DWP, even though, I mean honestly we had absolutely mimicked GDS in DWP in our digital centres by putting up the bunting...you know, really ruthlessly just stealing all the good ideas. But GDS was just fundamentally, purely digital and it was, yeah, incredibly different. It was much more challenging, people were much more open, it wasn’t anything like so hierarchical and it was still kind of like, a big startup back in ‘16 [2016]. And like, you know where it is now in ‘19 [2019] where it feels more like an enterprise.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, it was way different and you know the statistic today in GDS, is 47% of us are in the age bracket of 30-40.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So that’s quite a lot different from I guess, the general profile of the Civil Service.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunninton:

And particularly DWP. So you really did notice it had much more, yeah, much more youth on its side immediately when you walked in the door.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And what, and when you joined what were your first priorities for, well yourself and for GDS?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh I think they’ve honestly remained the same. And it’s funny because I had my equivalent from Australia here today to chat, and I was saying, the two bits of advice I always consistently give digital organisations, digital countries, starting out are one, build capability, get the academies sorted at scale. Two, don’t start building applications until you’ve got your identity strategy sorted out.

Angus Montgomery:

Right.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because if you don’t get your identity strategy first and foremost ahead of, then you find yourself in the kind of position we are which is, playing catchup on identity.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And there the two, they’ve always been my two priorities here at GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Support the Verify programme, build out the Academies.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Brilliant. And what were you, when you joined, obviously you said it was very very different from DWP, what were the differences in the sense of like, moving from a department to the centre and what you could do here and what you couldn’t do from the centre that you could do in departments?

Kevin Cunnington:

I think the main thing is that I always felt in DWP, notwithstanding the fact that I was running a bigger group probably two or three times the size of GDS, I wasn’t quite as busy if that makes sense. I had more time to think about the strategy. And famously we used to have these Friday morning breakfast meetings with the ‘brain trust’, quotes around that, where we just used to think about what DWP could look like in 2020, 2025, 2030.

And I think it’s taken you know, as you say, nearly the two and a half, three years I’ve been here to get to a point where I think I've now got the right structures and management team in place, that I’m actually beginning to free up to think about what is our 2030 vision, what is the future of A.I in the workplace and yeah, it’s taken quite, it’s taken much longer than I thought it would to get to that point where I’ve got that same quality of thinking time that I had in the departments.

Kevin Cunnington:

Which is just an interesting observation, really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, that is interesting. And well in what other ways as well, I mean you obviously, in that respect GDS has changed in that you kind of, now have that space to think about that stuff. What other ways do you feel that GDS has grown and developed so far in your time here?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well I think the two obvious things you’d highlight is, it’s much bigger. It’s 860 people today, and I think it was about 400 when I joined, it’s of that order, so it’s much bigger.

The new building here in Aldgate is just brilliant. I think it’s made a massive change of quality of life for all of us here in GDS. But I think there’s some other things as well. Acquiring the Academies gave us a national footprint for the first time.

Angus Montgomery:

So we have Academies, sorry, in Leeds and..

Kevin Cunnington:

Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle. Hopefully I keep saying Bristol outloud, for the good people of Bristol to hear me, so hopefully that’ll come true at some point.

And I think the other thing that’s changed is we’ve now got the Introvert Network and of course, we’ve got the BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] Network, which didn’t exist back then, so I think we are you know, continuing to embrace diversity and inclusion here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

And that’s a very obvious thing that diversity and inclusion is, it’s something that we talk about a lot in this organisation, and rightly so, but I think I’ve not worked in organisations like this where it’s so obvious that the organisation cares about that, and I think that that’s really important.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’m the same. I think it’s integral to its DNA.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And you wonder, I mean it’s one thing to take great pride in around GDS. I mean it’s not, I didn’t start it but nevertheless I feel the real responsibility of making sure we continue to be diverse and inclusive going forward.

Angus Montgomery:

Definitely. And looking forward, because we’re recording this in April and we’re moving onto a new financial year.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

So there’s a lot of work going on in GDS and around government as a whole as people prepare for it and people think about, not just the year ahead but as you’ve mentioned, the 10 or 20 years ahead and what we could do.

So first of all, could you tell me a little bit about what your priorities are for the next year?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so in terms of priorities, I generally try and describe GDS you know, through the lens of history where, in 2012 we started out by digital by default, which was all just about building confidence that as a Civil Service we could insource some of these things and do them.

The next phase, 2015 onwards, I would say is building capability. That the integration of the Academies, the GAAP platforms, all the things we’ve done to scale the business.

And then I’d say over the last 12-18 months, we’ve talked more about transformation, collaboration and innovation really. That’s the kind of slogans we batted off for Sprint last year and so with that in mind, and we’ve got some big things landing in the very short term, we’ve got the A.I review that we’ve been doing on how A.I could be used in the workforce, that we’ve done in conjunction with DCMS, landing over the next few months. We’ve got the minister’s review on innovation and how that could land, although that report is becoming much broader than innovation. It’s really kind of front-running what I think we’ll end up saying as part of SR19, or spending review 19.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then we’ve got quite a big set of tours really. So we’ve got all the new Sprint conferences in the devolved nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, which of course we’ve never done before. We’re doing a special in Leeds and then of course, we’re heading home to London in September. And then on the back of that, we’ve got, we’re attending every Civil Service Live doing keynote presentations, and we’re doing the Let’s Talk About Race workshops as well.

Angus Montgomery:

Yes, which is towards the end of the month I think, isn’t it? Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes exactly. And then towards the end of the month, we’ve actually got Breaking Down Barriers. Which is our functional view of how we promote BAME people into the SCS [Senior Civil Service] within digital.

Angus Montgomery:

Into Senior Civil Service.

Yeah. Wow. So a lot coming up.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

A lot touring and a lot of talking. And yeah, a busy summer ahead. And as we kind of, as you think about your priorities, in your opinion, what, can you summarise what GDS is here to do and how that role is developing and how it will develop, I suppose over the coming years?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so you know, we’ve tried to highlight the core values of GDS by putting them into pithy slogans really. ‘Show what good looks like’, and GDS has always been great at showing what good looks like from, right from the early days of user research right through to now. We show what good looks like.

Two, slightly new but ‘do the hardest things’. So my view is, GDS should be prototyping things today that departments will want to explore in 2 years time. Good example of that would be voice activation on GOV.UK.

Third value is around reflecting the society we serve. We talked a lot about diversity but we also need to encourage SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises) across the UK to work with us. We also need, as GDS, to have a more regional footprint.

And then the fourth value we talk about is helping government transform. And that for me, is the one I want to tweak going forward. I think our role is not to help but to lead.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok.

Kevin Cunnington;

And just be more proactive about, this is what good in the space of biometrics, or this is what good in the space of voice activation, looks like. And begin to work more proactively with departments to lay out that roundmap that we asked them to follow. Yeah just be much more proactive in the fourth category.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok. That’s interesting. So is that proactive in the sense of sort of, actively working with these projects or doing these things as exemplars almost?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly, exactly like that Angus. Working with some departments on exemplars, setting the standards and then, really, encouraging, cajoling even, departments to say well, now we’ve figured out how to do voice activation of services, why wouldn’t you make all your major services voice ‘activationable’ by 2027.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

That kind of thing. I think the other big shift is the local digital declaration. Where we’re obviously working much more closer nowadays with local authorities, which I think is a really good thing for the UK because citizens interact far more frequently with local authorities than they do obviously, central government.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. And finally, because we’re getting, we’re running towards the end of this episode, just finish with a couple of well, I suppose, quick fire-ish questions. First all, what’s the most challenging part of your job?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh quick fire? I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say keeping your eye on the ball really. There’s a lot going on, and actually just keeping as focused on the core business as well as planning for EU Exit, is definitely the most difficult part of it.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Keeping all, yeah...keeping in charge of everything. What’s the most enjoyable part?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well this will come as an irony ‘cause most people know I’m quite, well I am an introvert, that’s why I took up computer science but, I love the touring if I’m honest.

Angus Montgomery:

You’ve got a lot of it coming up so.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. You know, the fact that we’re going on tour with as we said, Sprint, Civil Service Live, Breaking Down Barriers. I think people also know that when I was in Vodafone, for 3 and a half years, I didn’t spend a single week in the country, in this country.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

I was perpetually as the Global Head somewhere else, looking at stuff in the Czech Republic or Italy. And I feel you know, in the back half of this year, I’d like to do more support our international directorate, Chris Ferguson’s directorate in flying the flag a little for Britain overseas.

Angus Montgomery:

‘Cause there’s a lot of work going on there.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, and showing you know, why we have done some of the things we’ve done. And obviously learning from others as we do that.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And that, that would make me very happy.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant, yeah. And final question, what’s your, what are you most proud of from your time at GDS so far?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, there’s, there’s a huge list you know, from GAAP, GOV Wifi, all the work we’ve done on GOV.UK for EU Exit, which I think has been brilliant. The work we’ve started on innovation, the innovation survey, the innovation landscape, the new pipeline process, local digital declarations, the publication of the 7 Lenses book. Being on top of EU Exit, the Academies, the Emerging Tech Development programme, the Global Digital Marketplace. I mean it’s just..

Angus Montgomery:

The list goes on.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah, you could be doing that for quite a while couldn’t you?

Angus Montgomery:

So thank you again to Kevin for joining us, and thank you for listening to this episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. I really hope that you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to future episodes or in fact, if you want to listen to the episodes that we’ve done so far, please do go to wherever it is that you download your podcasts episodes from, so Spotify, Apple Music, all those places. You’ll find us there, so hit subscribe and we hope you enjoy what we do in the future. And thank you again and goodbye.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you Angus.